A Public Education Case At The Supreme Court

The justices consider whether barring public funds to religious schools is a type of illegal discrimination

Yesterday was an exciting, and exhausting day as I covered oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court for a case concerning how and whether taxpayer money can flow to religious schools. The case is Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, and supporters of the plaintiffs hope a favorable outcome could pave the way for more government subsidies to private schools, while opponents say the future of public education hangs in the balance.

The courtroom has very limited seating for journalists, and if you want to cover a case — which I have done only once before, in 2016 — you email the Court’s press representative to ask if you can have media access that day. So I emailed them on January 10th, and a week later they approved me to go. This was my day-pass to get in:

For The American Prospect I covered the background of the case, what the Justices asked about in court, and the potential long-run implications.

The TLDR: The Supreme Court has long held it’s legal for states to include religious schools in their private-school voucher programs. But now the justices have to decide if it should be mandatory to include religious schools in those voucher programs, and whether it would be unconstitutional to offer no subsidies to religious schools at all.

Advocates for public education see a positive ruling for the plaintiffs as deeply threatening to both the separation of church and state, and the ability to financially support a robust public-education system. School choice advocates are hopeful that a positive ruling could make it easier to expand voucher programs to private and religious schools in the future.

I will say it was a pretty remarkable experience to hear the Justices in person, especially when they interrupted the attorneys, or sounded straight up annoyed. It’s pretty wild that in 2020 there still are no video recordings allowed in the courtroom. Journalists are also only allowed to bring in pen and paper, all recording devices, including cellphones, iWatches etc had to be left outside. (They do publish online transcripts of the proceedings.)

You can read the full story here.

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Organizing progressive politicians

How a billionaire's son helped block a legal pot dispensary, and taking seriously the financial toll of primaries

Happy 2020! I hope everyone’s year is off to a good start, and I have three new stories to share.

  • In The American Prospect I have a feature looking at Local Progress — a growing national network of over 1,000 progressive city councilmembers. Its aim is to train and mobilize local electeds to be more effective, and frankly more ambitious once they get into office.

    As Helen Gym, a Philly city councilmember, put it: “When you run for office there are a million and one programs and networks to help you, and they often talk all about the obstacles you’ll face in a campaign, like barriers for money, patriarchy, and racism. But once you get elected there’s almost nothing in place to support you.”

    As Brad Lander, a NYC city councilmember, added: “We probably spend at least $100 on getting people elected for every dollar we spend on trying to help them succeed once they have. And that’s being really generous. It might be $1,000 to $1.”

    When we think of organizing, we don’t usually think of organizing politicians, but that’s really what this network has set out to do. It’s not always smooth-sailing, and there are all kinds of barriers and obstacles these leaders have to contend with, but what I learned I found really interesting, and I would definitely characterize Local Progress as a valuable new piece of infrastructure in progressive political life.

  • On January 1, Illinois became the 11th state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana. But residents in Decatur, IL won’t be getting a recreational pot dispensary, or cannabis-related businesses in their town anytime soon. I looked at how the massive donations from Howard G. Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, influenced that situation. You can read that Intercept story here.

  • And lastly, there are so many reasons why it's challenging for average people to mount primary challenges against federal incumbents. But one reason that's rarely talked about is the financial risks and sacrifices it requires to campaign if you’re not independently wealthy. I talked with three working class candidates about how they’re managing their personal finances this cycle, and why they’re running for Congress despite the strain. You can read that Intercept story here.


Thanks for reading and supporting this work! Your feedback is always welcome.

My favorite work from 2019

(13 stories)

I hope everyone is having a really nice holiday break.

I’ve been able to take some real time off for the first time in long time, which has been quite good. Especially since I imagine 2020 will be an extremely intense year for the news.

It’s a bit hard to believe I’ve made it another year as a freelancer but I’m glad to say I did. During 2019 I published 79 stories—across fifteen different outlets. I won two awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, and I reported a 7,000-word cover story with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. I started reporting a lot more on the politics of climate change, zeroing in on labor unions and how they can both help and stall political action. I also joined a new union, the Freelance Solidarity Project, which is affiliated with the National Writers Union. We’re working collectively to raise standards for freelance media workers across the board.

It’s been a gutting year for the news industry, with more than 3,000 journalists losing their jobs across the country, and some really amazing outlets like Pacific Standard shuttered altogether. I really, really appreciate and value your readership and financial support to help make this challenging line of work possible.

In keeping with roundups I did in 201820172016, and 2015, I’m going to lift up some of the work I’m most proud of from this year.

1.Washingtonian: “I Fully Intend to Outlast These People”: 18 Federal Workers on What It’s Really Like to Work for the Trump Administration

This magazine story featured vignettes from 18 civil servants who work in different agencies across the federal government. We don’t often hear about, or from, civil servants, since it’s political appointees who typically act as the government’s public face.

Everyone I interviewed for this story worked for the federal government since at least under Obama, and some since under Bush. They worked for agencies ranging from the State Department, Department of Justice and NASA, to the Department of Labor and the National Institute of Health. I wanted to learn what it’s like for them to go to work each day under the Trump administration, and learn what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, what’s hard, what’s surprising.

2. The American Prospect: As Consumer Protections Dwindle, Schools Push Financial Literacy

This feature looked at the powerful movement promoting “financial literacy” courses in public schools. I look at where this movement came from, why it’s spreading so fast, what research says about it, and who really benefits.

3. Washington City Paper: K-12 Street: How Charter Schools Won D.C. Politics

This one sought to understand how the local charter school movement in Washington D.C. has successfully beat back regulation over so many years.

City Paper organized a community event a few weeks after my story came out at a local music venue, where I moderated a panel with education stakeholders on school transparency.

4. The Hechinger Report: Can start-up companies profit off one of the lowest paid professions: home-based child care?

This piece looked at the rise of new tech startups which seek to make it easier for people to run childcare businesses in their homes. Think “airBnb for childcare business owners.” These companies have attracted millions of dollars in investment over the last few years, and have vast nationwide growth ambitions. The idea is to help providers with their bookkeeping, licensing, marketing and curriculum offerings, in exchange for a 10 percent cut of the revenue.

I traveled to San Francisco to report this out, and did my best to investigate some of the companies’ broad marketing claims. I spoke with people who feel the startups are bringing some much needed innovation, and others who see them as fairly predatory.

5. The Intercept: Conservatives Pushed A Strategy To Weaken Home Health Care Unions. The Trump Administration Bit.

I co-authored this piece with another reporter, Nick Surgey, and it featured an audio recording of an invite-only donor call from the right-wing State Policy Network two weeks before the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision. We reported on their unusually candid conversation about weakening unions and advancing a broad free-market agenda.

GOP activists also hired consultants to survey voters and "identify the best words and phrases" to shape their talking points around weakening unions. We published their 86-slide Powerpoint presentation in full.

6. The Intercept: Labor Unions Are Skeptical of the Green New Deal, And They Want Activists To Hear Them Out

Unions and environmentalists have not always seen eye-to-eye, and the building trades unions in particular tend to see progressive climate movements as very threatening to their interests. At the same time, the Green New Deal resolution includes a lot of explicit language in support of workers, collective bargaining, and strong labor protections. Its authors clearly hope to bring unions on board. Can they? I talked to a lot of unions for this story about that question.

Among others I interviewed Héctor Figueroa, the then-president of 32BJ SEIU, which represents door attendants, security officers, cleaners, and airport workers along the East Coast. In early February 32BJ became the first union in the country to endorse the Green New Deal, and Figueroa described to me his vision for even more union leadership on climate change. This past July, 57-year-old Figueroa unexpectedly died — a huge loss for progressives and the labor movement. But among other things, he did help get his parent union, SEIU, to endorse the Green New Deal in June.

7. In These Times: 8 Unions Have a Plan for Climate Action—But It Doesn’t Mention Fighting the Fossil Fuel Industry

One cool thing that happened after my Intercept story on labor and the Green New Deal came out was In These Times asked me if I’d like to start doing some more regular climate + labor reporting for them. So including this piece linked above, which I particularly liked, I was able to publish 7 ITT stories this year looking at intersections between labor and climate.

CityLab: New Jersey Is Getting Sued Over School Segregation

I reported on a rare statewide school desegregation lawsuit that’s currently ongoing in New Jersey. I also looked at why this lawsuit could impact not only school integration, but also longstanding debates around zoning and housing.

9. DCist: For Kids Experiencing Homelessness, Back-To-School Can Mark A Return To Stability

This year I participated in the fourth annual D.C. media blitz on homelessness, where local news organizations across the city dedicate a full day of coverage to the local homelessness crisis. For my part I covered what it’s like for homeless youth in D.C. during the back-to-school transition. Earlier this week it was recognized by DCist as one of their top 25 stories of the year.

10. Jewish Currents: Fear Is Not A Good Principle

It’s been great to watch the resurgence of Jewish Currents, a small and mighty magazine covering the Jewish left. This summer for them I had the honor of profiling 84-year old Barb Bearman, who has been fighting for school desegregation in Minnesota for the past five decades.

11. The Intercept: A Democratic Firm Is Shaking Up The World Of Political Fundraising

I reported on an obscure company, Grassroots Analytics, which wants to help people run for office who don’t have ready-made rolodexes of rich friends, family, and coworkers. Some say what they’re doing is illegal. Meanwhile, they’ve quietly raised millions of dollars for long-shot candidates. The story is about the opaque world of political fundraising, monopoly in the campaign industry, and data-sharing ethics in the 21st century.

12. Washington City Paper: D.C. Charter Administrators Have Some of the Highest School Salaries in Town; Their Teachers, Some of the Lowest

This was City Paper’s fifth most clicked on story for 2019, and it looks at salary disparities between DC charter teachers and traditional public school teachers. I also looked at some of the high salaries some D.C. charter school administrators make. One charter leader took home $541,000 in compensation in 2017.

13. The Intercept: A Small Chicago Firm Has Quietly Funded Nearly Two Dozen Anti-Union Lawsuits

I published this story on Monday, making it my last one of the year. It’s about a finance litigation firm in Chicago, that has been quietly bankrolling class action lawsuits in the wake of Janus v. AFSCME. Finance litigation firms work by funding lawsuits upfront, making bets that they will enjoy an ample cut of a plaintiff’s proceeds. The lead attorney on the lawsuits had previously denied his cases were part of any sort of coordinated effort.

Thanks so much for reading, and I’ll see you in 2020!

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Why Environmental Groups Oppose Trump's Trade Deal

This is a huge, busy week in Washington D.C., where House Democrats are looking to cram a bunch of votes in before lawmakers depart for the holiday season. And besides a likely presidential impeachment vote, the renegotiated North American free trade agreement is expected to come to the floor. Last week it secured the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, which House Democrats were waiting for. Getting this trade deal passed is the president’s top legislative priority of 2019.

But the agreement has virtually no support from leading environmental groups, which have been urging House Democrats to vote against the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The deal doesn’t even mention climate change, and climate advocates say the present text will make it too easy for corporations to outsource their pollution to other countries.

I wrote for In These Times about what green groups are specifically raising objection to, and why House Democrats seem poised to move forward regardless. If this is an issue that’s important to you, this is the week to get involved.

Can read the story here.

Climate Activists Target Exxon's Lawyer, A Prominent Democratic Donor

Over the last few years, more than a dozen state and local governments have filed lawsuits against fossil fuel companies—in attempts to hold them liable for their role in perpetuating the climate crisis.

This week, a decision came down in a case between ExxonMobil and the State of New York, and New York lost. The New York attorney general had charged Exxon with securities-fraud, saying the oil company withheld pertinent information about the future costs of climate change and environmental regulations from its shareholders. The NY State Supreme Court judge, called the allegations “hyperbolic” and rejected the suit. It’s a real blow for those who hoped other jurisdictions might bring similar claims, as New York has a particularly strong law against shareholder fraud.

This case began four years ago, and the lead attorney representing Exxon is Ted Wells Jr., a top lawyer at the New York-based law firm Paul Weiss. He’s also a top Democratic donor, who has given more than half a million dollars to Democratic candidates and committees over the last 30 years. He also sits on the 13-person Harvard Corporation, which is a board that, along with the Harvard University president, decides on matters like whether to pursue campus divestment from fossil fuels. Activists at Harvard have been pressing for the university to divest since 2012.

For The Intercept, I have a story about climate activists who are now targeting attorneys like Wells, and law firms like Paul Weiss. This fits into a larger campaign environmentalists have been leading over the last two years, with the “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge” — an effort to seek commitments from politicians and candidates to not knowingly accept any contribution over $200 from the PACs, lobbyists, or SEC-named executives of fossil fuel companies. The thinking is that taking real bold action on climate change will never happen as long as the party stays too cozy with oil and gas companies.

(About 50 members of Congress have taken the pledge so far, and all Democratic candidates for president, with the exception of Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick.)

While Wells Jr. did not agree to talk for the piece, I did talk at length with another big Democratic donor who is Chevron’s attorney in similar climate liability cases right now. I talked to him about whether he feels conflicted representing Chevron, and whether Democrats should think twice about accepting his money. Short answers: no, and nope, but it’s worth reading him in his own words.

Read the Intercept story here.

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