Utility shutoffs, utility debt

And a look at how conservative groups are capitalizing on Covid-19 school frustrations

Today I have a new story out at CityLab that looks at two things: what are we going to do about utility disconnections for the remainder of the pandemic? And then what are we going to do about the mounting debt people have from unpaid heat, water, and broadband bills when the pandemic ends?

I reported some on this issue back in October, but we’re in a different spot now for a few reasons. One, Joe Biden is president, and Democrats have control over the Senate. That means the idea of a national utility shutoff moratorium — which passed the House last year but never got a vote in the Senate — has more of a shot. Though so far, Biden has only endorsed a national eviction moratorium, not one for utility shutoffs. The public health arguments for utility shutoffs are no less relevant today than they were six months ago; in fact, today we have more evidence than we did then that the patchwork of state moratoriums on utility shutoffs contributed a decrease in Covid-19 related infections and deaths. (Keeping heat on, water running, and Internet connected helps people actually stay home, stay clean, and avoid crowding with friends + relatives.)

But even for those people who have avoided utility shutoffs due to emergency public health orders, what about all the mounting unpaid utility bills? When and how will those arrearages be paid off? And how much debt are we actually talking about? You can learn about the issue and read the CityLab story here.

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Yesterday I had a story published in The Intercept looking at the ways in which conservative groups are seeking to capitalize on the profound frustration many parents have with school closures during the pandemic. For example, Chicago teachers might go on strike soon, and a group of parents, represented pro-bono by the Liberty Justice Center, has threatened to sue the union if they do. The Liberty Justice Center is the same conservative public interest law firm that brought the Janus v. AFSCME case to the U.S Supreme Court in 2018, successfully challenging public-sector union agency fees. Other conservative groups are trying to use this moment to push through aggressive private school voucher bills (over 15 states have introduced bills this year) and as I reported back in July, advocates have been hoping to use Covid-19 to secure more subsidies for homeschooling. I talked with folks who track school privatization efforts about how school closures have offered new opportunities to groups that have long sought to weaken unions and traditional public schools.

Now, lest this be confused, does this mean parents who are trying to get their children back to schools quickly are all right-wing, or share the same goals as all these conservative institutions? No, of course not. I take at face value parents who say their objective right now is just to do right by their kids. What I don’t take at face value—and neither should you—is that a conservative law firm with a long history of waging anti-union litigation, is representing these parents pro-bono and doing high-profile media blitzes about why the Chicago Teachers Union is selfish — simply because they want to help children return to the classroom. We can understand that there are such things as self-interested third parties in politics.

Moreover, there are additional lawsuits against school districts, school boards, and state governments right now around school re-openings, not litigated by conservative organizations. But you can appreciate how if you are in a community angry at your school district for not re-opening schools, you might be less likely to oppose a private school voucher bill at your state legislature this year. You might even support the bill this year for the first time. So all of these things can be potentially mobilized, and groups are thinking about that.

I will add though, despite all the frustration that has existed this year, and continued reluctance around returning to school buildings amid the pandemic — support for public schools remains high and polls suggest the vast majority of families have no intention of pivoting to permanent virtual schooling, or homeschooling after the pandemic.

A new EdChoice/Morning Consult poll of U.S. parents released yesterday found most don’t think it will be safe to return for a few months. (Though there was a slight uptick in comfort among parents since December.)

But when you hear people talking about resistance to returning to in-person learning after schools have re-opened, I think it’s important to recognize the distinction that the resistance is returning to reopened schools during the pandemic, not after. (At least according to the best available evidence we have now.) I have another piece coming soon on Biden’s 100-Day-Goal to reopen schools, which I’ll send when it’s out.

You can read my Intercept story here.

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