Hot for Teachers

Hot for Teachers

The Washington Monthly

Eric Christopher is the kind of young, gifted, committed teacher that any principal would want to hire. A straight-A student from a public high school on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he gave up a chance for an Ivy League education to take care of his sick mother and attend nearby Washington College, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 2006. He spent the next seven years at a public elementary school near his hometown, teaching the Spanish-speaking children of agricultural and poultry workers while earning a master’s degree in bilingual education. But opportunities to advance were mostly based on teacher seniority, the pay was low, and he was eager for a fresh challenge in a new environment. So, in 2013, he moved to the big city—Washington, D.C.

The nation’s capital had become something of a magnet for well-educated, idealistic young teachers like Christopher, many of them drawn to the rapidly expanding network of public charter schools. Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier. Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results. Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.

After moving to Washington, Christopher quickly got hired at one of the city’s oldest and largest charter schools, the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy. But not long after he started, reports surfaced that would lead to the indictment of the school’s founder for embezzlement. (The school has since reopened as a non-charter public school.) Christopher found himself planning his departure from Height only a year after arriving.

After that discouraging experience at a public charter, Christopher decided to check out openings in the city’s traditional schools, run by the District of Columbia Public Schools system. To say that DCPS had a poor reputation would be an understatement—the national media had long labeled it one of the worst school districts in the nation. But as Christopher spent time on the DCPS website, he saw opportunities for high-performing teachers to become instructional coaches—just what he was looking for.

He applied, and was surprised by the rigor of the hiring process—much tougher than what he had experienced in previous teaching jobs. He was judged on a video of his teaching, his analysis of another teacher’s instruction, a written test on teaching strategies, and multiple rounds of interviews with central office staff. Once he had run that gauntlet, his name was posted to a central candidate bank where principals, who had the final say in staffing their schools, could choose to follow up.

Pete Marovich

Eric Bethel, principal at Turner Elementary School in Washington, D.C., speaks to a student after breaking up a scuffle between him and a good friend during lunch period on May 4, 2017.

Several did, but one in particular impressed Christopher. His name was Eric Bethel, principal of Turner Elementary School, located in one of the city’s poorest southeastern neighborhoods, seven miles and a world away from the White House.

It was a hot Friday afternoon in late August when Christopher, who has the close-cropped hair and slight build of a long-distance runner, arrived at the school for his interview. He was sweating in a suit and tie. Bethel, wearing a Turner T-shirt over a dress shirt and suit pants, and the assistant principal, Lisa Rosado, put him at ease with a warm welcome. Bethel asked about Christopher’s background, teaching philosophy, and experience working with impoverished students. It quickly became clear to Christopher that Bethel was as serious as he was sociable—“clearly a man on a mission,” he would later recall. Bethel, then thirty-seven years old and new to Turner, was open about the school’s difficulties. Ninety-seven percent of its students were black, and 88 percent received public assistance. Test scores were among the lowest in the district. But Bethel expressed infectious excitement about assembling a new team of teachers and his commitment to working closely with them to turn the school around.

Bethel was equally impressed with Christopher, especially his commitment to the school’s mission. “This is really tough work,” Bethel would later say. “If you’re not driven by a sense of social justice, you’re not going to last.” At the end of the ninety-minute meeting, he told the candidate to let him know if he heard from other schools. Not taking any chances, he emailed Christopher an offer early Sunday morning. Christopher accepted.

Turner used to be the type of school where many teachers ended up because they couldn’t get jobs elsewhere. But after three years there, Christopher, now thirty-two, has no regrets. During two long Saturday-morning conversations at a high-end coffee shop in an up-and-coming neighborhood near Nationals Park, he explained why he loves his work. Today, he said, there is a “strong sense of professionalism, a sense that we’re a team.” Thanks to his own strong performance over two years as a teacher and instructional coach, Christopher is earning $127,000, more than double what he was making on the Eastern Shore.

After decades of dismal academic results, Turner has begun to change the educational equation in its classrooms. The percentage of students reading at or above grade level has risen from 23 percent in early 2014–15 to 60 percent today. Suspensions are down from 13 percent of the student body to 5 percent. And despite intense competition from charter schools, its enrollment is up 32 percent since Bethel’s arrival, to 520 students.

Turner’s nascent resurgence reflects progress in the DCPS system as a whole. Daily attendance has reached 90 percent, up from 85 percent in 2010–11. Chronic truancy is down by nearly 40 percent over the past four years. Graduation rates have climbed to 69 percent, the highest in the city’s history.

And student achievement has begun a long climb toward respectability. While Washington’s test scores have traditionally been among the lowest in the nation, the percentage of fourth graders achieving math proficiency has more than doubled on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) over the past decade, as have the percentages of eighth graders proficient in math and fourth graders proficient in reading. Scores have risen even after accounting for an influx of wealthier students. And DCPS has caught up to the middle of the pack of other urban school districts at the fourth-grade level on the national exams.

In addition, the school system’s strongest teachers are no longer leaving in droves for charter schools. In many cases, the flow has been reversed, leaving even Washington’s most prominent charters struggling to compete for talent.

When most people think of school reform in the District of Columbia, they probably remember the Time magazine cover photo of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee with a broom in her hand and a hard look on her face. In leading the school system from 2007 to 2010, she was the polarizing public image of a controversial national strategy to improve public education by cracking down on bad teachers. But in the seven years since Rhee left Washington—and with the national press having turned its attention elsewhere—Rhee’s successors have quietly but persistently continued to pursue change. Teaching in D.C., and in public education generally, had long been a low-status occupation marked by weak standards and factory-like work rules. Building on Rhee’s early work, and learning from her mistakes, her successors have effectively transformed it into a performance-based profession that provides recognition, responsibility, collegiality, support, and significant compensation—features that policy experts, including many of Rhee’s harshest critics, have long sought but never fully achieved.

Ironically, Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation. They combined these with other changes, like more collaboration among teachers, that these same critics had backed. Just as notably, the transformation is taking place not at charters but in the traditional public school system, an institution that many reformers have written off as too hidebound to innovate.

The story about D.C.’s teacher reform efforts since Michelle Rhee’s departure has gone untold until now. One reason is that her successors have sought to escape the media glare of the Rhee era; they haven’t presented the press with natural protagonists. Another is that amid the trench warfare that the school reform debate has settled into in recent years, with the liberal-left and unions rallying around traditional schools, and moderates and conservatives supporting charter schools, neither side has had an interest in promoting the story.

But in the course of research I have been doing on teacher reform nationwide, I have followed DCPS’s evolving human capital system, interviewing senior school system officials and watching reforms play out in Washington schools. What I’ve found is a story that confounds the traditional battle lines in public education, and gives each side in the school reform war reason both to cheer and to rethink its assumptions.

Eric Bethel knows firsthand what the District’s school system was like before the era of reform. His parents, D.C. natives and part of the city’s accomplished black middle class, were public school teachers before and after his father served two decades in the U.S. Army, eventually as a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division. They moved back to Washington for Bethel’s high school years, and after graduating from a local Catholic school, playing point guard for Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, and earning a master’s degree, Bethel decided to follow the family tradition and apply for a teaching job in the D.C. area.

He was hired at Marie Reed Elementary School, part of DCPS, after a ten-minute interview at a folding table in the school gym. “Back then, if you had a pulse, you got a job,” he told me during one of several visits I made to Turner this year. On his first day, his colleagues walked out of a staff meeting, with the principal in midsentence, at exactly 3:30, the union-negotiated end of the teachers’ school day.

Bethel’s early experiences were emblematic of DCPS’s myriad failings. The patronage-plagued central office couldn’t calculate daily attendance, much less educate students. New hires often didn’t get paid for months. New textbooks gathered dust in warehouses while there weren’t enough to go around in classrooms. Elementary schools mostly didn’t teach art or music. High school electives were rare. And the system was hemorrhaging students to charter schools.

Low pay made it hard for D.C. teachers to live in the city and forced many to take second jobs. When Bethel sought to take advantage of a federal home subsidy program called Teacher Next Door, he tried repeatedly to get documentation from the school system’s central office to verify his teaching status. It never arrived.

In the absence of a common curriculum and citywide teaching standards, instruction in many classrooms was a steady diet of work sheets and other drudgery. “You were never sure what, or how, you should teach,” Bethel said.

Bethel had been at Marie Reed for seven years when Washington’s thirty-six-year-old mayor, Adrian Fenty, named Michelle Rhee chancellor, the day after a desperate city council shifted control of the school system from an elected school board to the mayor’s office. Rhee was the seventh chancellor in a decade. Many commentators characterized her as a tough-talking but inexperienced outsider, an ingénue with an attitude. In truth, she had been working closely with D.C. school officials for nearly a decade as the founder of the New Teacher Project (now TNTP), a national organization conceived by Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp to help urban school systems recruit more talented teachers by skirting the traditional education school pipeline. It was Kopp who recommended Rhee to Fenty. To Rhee, higher-quality teachers were key to exploding the notion that poor kids couldn’t learn—to proving, in her words, that “demography is not destiny.”

D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee was the polarizing public image of a controversial national strategy to improve public education by cracking down on bad teachers. But in the seven years since she left Washington, her successors have quietly but persistently continued to pursue change.

She realized that she first had to get a clearer sense of the talent in the city’s classrooms. While upward of 90 percent of Washington’s students were performing below grade level the year before Rhee arrived, 95 percent of the city’s teachers had earned “satisfactory” ratings. Rhee quickly resolved to build a new evaluation system that made performance matter.

Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital. She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America and stayed, becoming the national Teacher of the Year in 2005–06.

At the beginning of the 2009–10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education. It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever. In the past, principals would spend a few minutes in teachers’ classrooms every year, looking mostly for quiet students and clean blackboards. Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by “master educators” from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings. Teachers would be gauged on their “commitment to the school community,” such as their contributions to school priorities like lowering suspension rates, and on student performance on nonstandardized assessments, like science projects, known as “student learning objectives.” Principals could dock teachers for chronic absenteeism and other failures of “core professionalism.”

But Henderson also wanted teachers to be measured on their students’ standardized test scores, to send a clear signal that performance mattered. Strategies for fairly comparing teachers with students of varying backgrounds were both complex and imperfect. Undeterred, Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.

Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst by not piloting the new teacher evaluation system—dubbed IMPACT—despite the fact that many principals weren’t sufficiently trained to use it and that teachers in some schools weren’t briefed on IMPACT until after the school year started. The need for the new system was too great to delay, Henderson argued. Suddenly, teachers were confronted by a new, untested evaluation strategy they barely grasped, with their livelihoods on the line.

Bethel saw the drama play out at Marie Reed. “People were panicked about losing their jobs,” he said. “Everyone thought IMPACT was aimed at getting rid of veterans.” Later, he would spend two years rating teachers as a master educator, often taking part in difficult conversations with teachers distraught at the performance reviews he gave them.

But Bethel supported IMPACT. “I liked the new teaching standards that were a part of the new system,” he said. “And I was tired of looking down the hall at Mr. Johnson teaching work sheets five days a week to his fourth-grade class, knowing that I would have to catch them up the next year in my class.” He was among the 663 of Washington’s 4,195 teachers rated “highly effective” when IMPACT’s first scores were released in July 2010. Seventy-five teachers were labeled “ineffective” and received termination letters with their scores.

The firings brought opposition to Rhee to a boil. Early on, she had gotten rid of dozens of untenured teachers for sleeping in class and other misbehavior. She had removed 250 teachers and 500 teacher’s aides for lacking proper teaching credentials. Within weeks of rolling out IMPACT, she had announced that budget cuts required her to lay off another 266 teachers. She had fired a quarter of the city’s principals, including the one at her daughters’ school; she even showed one principal the door in front of a PBS camera. She had announced the closing of twenty-three under-enrolled schools without telling anyone at the schools ahead of time. And she had declared in a speech at the National Press Club that consensus building and compromise were “totally overrated.”

Now, she was firing veteran teachers for ineffective teaching—something that had virtually never happened in public education. The nation’s teachers’ unions deployed every ounce of their considerable influence against her. The story became a cable news staple. Rhee was so controversial that the Gates Foundation refused to include D.C. in a $500 million national study to measure teaching effectiveness.

Ultimately, she cost Adrian Fenty, her patron, his political career.

Rhee was firing Washington’s predominantly black educators during the height of one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history. The city’s majority black voters held Fenty, himself black, directly responsible. He lost the September 2010 Democratic primary in a landslide. With a primary victory tantamount to election in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, Rhee resigned in October—but not before another magazine cover, this time Newsweek’s, trumpeted her plans to launch a $100 million anti–teachers’ union lobbying organization called StudentsFirst.

Even in defeat, Rhee couldn’t shake controversy. In March 2011, USA Today ran a front-page story headlined “When Standardized Test Scores Soared in D.C., Were the Gains Real?,” an examination of suspected Rhee-era cheating. The problem turned out to be concentrated in a few schools, and investigations found no evidence of widespread cheating. But the incident cemented the conventional wisdom that teacher reform in Washington was mostly about test scores, and mostly misguided.

In the wake of Rhee’s departure and the controversy that enveloped her, the school system worked hard to stay out of the spotlight that Rhee had welcomed. Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s successor, would largely refuse to talk to the national media at the outset of her nearly six-year tenure as chancellor, which ended last September.

But rather than abandon her predecessor’s commitment to teacher reform, Henderson doubled down. She was smoother around the edges than Rhee, but just as driven. She had spent her early years in public housing just north of the Bronx as the only child of a single mother who was a public educator by day and a postal worker by night. After attending public and parochial schools, she went on to Georgetown University and then back to the Bronx to teach. School reform was personal for her.

Pete Marovich

Turner Elementary School students leave school at the end of the day in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, May 4, 2017.

Before becoming chancellor, she had led bruising negotiations with the teachers’ union on a new contract that ended a wide range of industrial-era employment practices. In exchange for a 22 percent salary hike for many teachers, the new deal, inked months before Rhee departed, stripped senior teachers’ right to claim vacancies; made performance, rather than seniority, the key factor in layoffs; and effectively ended teacher tenure.

It also scrapped public education’s sacrosanct “single salary schedule”—paying teachers strictly on the basis of their academic credentials and longevity in the classroom—in favor of performance pay. “Minimally effective” teachers would be frozen on the salary scale. But their “highly effective” counterparts would qualify for bonuses and permanent hikes that lifted Washington’s top teachers’ salaries from $87,000 to $132,000.

With the new teacher evaluation system and financial incentives in place, Henderson and her team launched projects to recruit and retain high-caliber teachers, like Eric Christopher, who in the past had mostly shunned the troubled urban school system. It wouldn’t help much to fire bad teachers if they couldn’t replace them with better ones.

Under the leadership of a young Stanford graduate and Rhodes Scholar on Kamras’s team named Scott Thompson, they constructed a “career ladder” based on experience and performance that would provide teachers a range of new opportunities, and higher pay, as they moved up. The important and lucrative work of teaching summer school, for example, would go to the city’s best teachers, rather than merely to the most senior ones.

Henderson revamped teacher recruitment, pouring people and money into marketing D.C. schools to 15,000 urban traditional and charter public school teachers in the Washington region and nationally—a move that prompted local charter school leaders to complain to Henderson and to take their teachers’ email addresses off
their websites.

Meanwhile, the IMPACT system was producing vast amounts of previously unavailable data. For example, Henderson and Jason Kamras, her successor as chief of human capital, learned from studying the ratings that teachers hired by May were 20 percent more effective than those hired in August. So they pressed principals to push up their hiring timelines. University of Michigan researchers discovered that teachers hired under the new, centralized teacher-screening system, called TeachDC, produced sharply higher IMPACT scores than those recruited by principals directly. Henderson and Kamras began marketing TeachDC heavily to principals.

Pete Marovich

Another teacher looks on as Eric Christopher, Leap ELA Instructional Coach at Turner Elementary School in Washington, D.C., tests a student’s reading abilities and comprehension on Wednesday, May 4, 2017.

The moves made a difference. Today, three times as many recruits are under contract by the end of the previous school year, more new hires have previous teaching experience, and university research has found that replacements for low-rated teachers produced four or five months’ worth of additional student learning in math and nearly as much in reading over three school years.

Henderson and Kamras worked just as hard to keep top talent from leaving. Beyond the better pay and the career ladder, they made changes to IMPACT to get more teacher buy-in, including reducing the influence of student test scores on teacher ratings. They revamped the central office to better support teachers. They also established the Teacher Retention Team, which feted high performers with personalized thank-you notes, leadership opportunities, membership in the Chancellor’s Teacher Cabinet, and an annual black-tie event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts complete with Grammy-winning entertainers and a rooftop dinner for 2,000.

The retention strategies paid off. While charter schools and surrounding suburbs once poached Washington talent with impunity, the city last year lost only 6 percent of its top-rated educators, even as “highly effective” teachers grew to 37 percent of the teaching force. That contrasted sharply with the 49 percent attrition rate among teachers rated “minimally effective,” who made up 4 percent of the force.

Even as Henderson and Kamras upgraded their talent pool, they realized that they couldn’t produce the student improvement they wanted with pink slips and thank-you notes alone; they had to ratchet up the performance of the entire teaching force. Brian Pick, another Princeton graduate and TFA veteran in the DCPS central office, worked with dozens of the city’s highest-performing teachers to craft entirely new reading, math, and writing curricula based on the demanding Common Core State Standards. After watching teachers struggle to deliver the new subject matter effectively, Pick’s team created sample lessons for every subject at every grade level to give teachers models, again with the help of the school system’s leading teachers.

Last summer, Henderson and Kamras went further, assigning teachers to learning teams in every school to deliver a comprehensive new teacher-training curriculum. These “LEAP” teams—short for “Learning Together to Advance our Practice”—are weekly ninety-minute sessions, led by subject-matter expert teachers and administrators, in which faculty work together to hone their teaching techniques, deepen their subject-matter knowledge, and review student work and school data. The sessions are followed up with weekly informal observations in every classroom, giving teachers regular feedback without the high stakes attached to IMPACT. It’s the kind of collaboration and support that many public school teachers, isolated in their classrooms, have long asked for but rarely gotten. As Turner reading teacher and seventeen-year DCPS veteran Ericka Logan put it, “Now it feels like people care about our work.”

Henderson and her team also worked to produce stronger school leaders, because research showed that lousy principals were a big reason why top teachers departed. In 2013, Eric Bethel, after his two-year tour as an
IMPACT master educator, became one of the first trainees in the school system’s new eighteen-month principal apprenticeship program, serving in two elementary schools before taking over Turner Elementary.

Turner is a standard-issue-looking public elementary school dating to the Truman administration—a rectangular, three-story redbrick building with a small gym and a cafeteria that doubles as an auditorium. Its classrooms are bright and stocked with attractive new furniture; the gym floor shines, thanks to a renovation the year before Bethel arrived. The din of young children at play rises during recess from brightly colored playground equipment, a basketball court, and an adjacent sports field.

It could be any school in the country, except for the fact that it is surrounded by often-troubled housing projects. Some of the aging, low-slung redbrick housing units have been replaced in recent years by suburban-like townhouses with a vaguely Tudor look. But as Bethel told me on one of the days I visited, “They look a lot better than what’s going on inside of them.” One day in March, as students were leaving at the end of the day, two men in a BMW were raked by automatic-weapon fire five blocks from Turner and crashed their car just outside the school’s entrance. One of the men died.

I sat with Bethel in his office near the end of a school day just before Thanksgiving, talking about a veteran teacher who had vowed that Bethel would burn in hell for giving her a low IMPACT rating during his two years working out of the DCPS central office as a teacher-evaluator. “It was tough work,” he told me, as his walkie-
talkie crackled. “Especially when teachers are working hard but just aren’t effective.” Two big picture windows opened onto the playground, with bands of the city’s townhouses visible in the middle distance. There was a picture of Bethel’s wife and four-year-old son on his desk; on a bulletin board hung a note from a second grader addressed to “the best principle ever.”

When the bell rang sounding dismissal at the end of the day, we walked into the hallway as orderly rows of young students in blue or white polo shirts and khaki pants moved down either side of the hallway, backpacks bulging behind them. Just under six feet tall and dressed in a gray suit, white shirt, and pale blue tie, Bethel put his arm around students who paused to say goodbye, addressing them by their names and wishing them a good day in a calm, caring voice.

The transformation of the teaching profession in the nation’s capital has demonstrated that traditional public school systems, not just charter schools, can be laboratories of innovation. 

As students filed past the front security desk to parents and guardians waiting outside, many other adults were entering the building headed in the opposite direction. They were there for the school’s monthly food bank. I watched some 300 students, more than half the school’s enrollment, along with relatives, many of them grandparents pushing strollers, snake through Turner’s gym, filling brightly colored shopping bags with fruit, vegetables, and other basics supplied by a local nonprofit, as City Year volunteers dressed as giant fruit serenaded the kids.

While the food bank was concluding, Bethel and a team of Turner’s math teachers were gathering for an after-school LEAP session around a modern, maple-veneer table in the school’s “professional development room,” a converted second-floor classroom. Assistant principal Rosado, Eric Christopher, and other teacher leaders were also at the table. The school’s latest math results were projected on an interactive whiteboard behind them.

Bethel, pitched forward in his seat with his elbows on the table, jumped into a review of spreadsheets that showed a lot more red, for students below grade level, than green, for those at grade level. The new results were from tests used to help with instruction rather than rate teachers under IMPACT. But Bethel stressed that the interim scores were highly correlated with the city’s new standardized exams and urged the teachers to track their students’ results closely.

“We’ve got to do better with ST Math,” he told the teachers at one point, concerned that the self-paced instructional software that supplements teachers’ instruction was underused. Simple things like logging young children on to their computers proved challenging and cut into instructional time, the teachers responded.

After more discussion of the new results, Bethel turned the meeting over to instructional coach Jessica Johnson, who led a LEAP seminar on the most productive ways of having students do math problems in class. Johnson started by talking about ways to ensure that students grasp what’s being asked of them in word problems. “Ask students to read the question aloud together,” she suggested. “Or have them turn and talk about the problem with the person next to them. Other ideas? Yes, Ms. Gilbeaux?”

Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation.

“Manipulatives and other visual aids are often helpful,” Janeé Gilbeaux, a second-grade teacher, offered.

“Scaffolding is key,” added Bethel, who had been tracking Johnson’s presentation closely. “You have to make sure students understand what the problem is asking of them and keep adding more levels of explanation until they get it.”

The session continued in this vein—Johnson presenting information followed by a back-and-forth conversation about the nuts and bolts of educating young math students—for two and a half hours. By the time the meeting ended, it was nearly six p.m. and dark outside. As the teachers made their way to the parking lot, it was hard not to be struck by the difference between the culture at Turner and the one that, years ago, had led Bethel’s colleagues to walk out on their principal at precisely 3:30.

There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade. There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles; and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.

By no means is every Washington teacher happy with the reforms and a handful of DCPS schools struggle with teachers leaving during the school year. Teaching in neighborhoods like Turner’s is stressful; Turner’s teacher absenteeism rate is higher than Bethel would like, and a handful of DCPS schools struggle with teachers leaving during the school year. Some principals have been less fully committed to the reforms than Bethel has. The quality of the implementation of the new LEAP initiative has varied from school to school, according to Bridget Hamre, a University of Virginia researcher who is studying the effort.

And despite academic gains, the school system still has a very long way to go. Achievement levels among Hispanic and black students, who make up 82 percent of enrollment, lag badly behind their white peers. Only 15 percent of black students scored “proficient” in reading last year on Washington’s new, more demanding, Common Core–aligned exams, compared to 74 percent of white students.

Still, the transformation of the teaching profession in the nation’s capital has demonstrated that traditional public school systems, not just charter schools, can be laboratories of innovation. And the reforms that the school system’s detractors have opposed most strongly have been central to the transformation. Creating the opportunities to advance within the profession, the substantial compensation incentives, and the culture of collegiality and continuous improvement that LEAP provides would have been next to impossible without abandoning seniority-based staffing, without performance-based pay and a career ladder, and, ultimately, without knowing who is doing a good job in the city’s classrooms and who isn’t.

Henderson, Kamras, and their colleagues have proved that it’s possible to attract talented teachers to the nation’s urban school systems and get them to stay. Teaching can be turned into attractive work with career opportunities, professional support, and substantial pay. No school system can simply wave a wand and overcome the impact of poverty on the students it serves. But by overhauling its teaching corps and teachers’ daily lives in schools, DCPS has given its students a far better chance than they had before. And it has created an important reform blueprint for other leaders to follow.

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Quick Takes: Will Trump Pull Out of the Paris Climate Agreement This Week?

Quick Takes: Will Trump Pull Out of the Paris Climate Agreement This Week?

The Washington Monthly

* Trump said that he would make his decision on the Paris Climate Agreement this week and the folks at Axios say they have the scoop.

President Trump has privately told multiple people, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, that he plans to leave the Paris agreement on climate change, according to three sources with direct knowledge.

But as they go on to explain, it won’t happen with a single announcement. There are 3 possible avenues:

Trump could announce he is pulling the U.S. from the deal, which would trigger a withdrawal process that wouldn’t conclude until November 2020 at the earliest…

Trump could declare that the Paris deal is actually a legal treaty that requires Senate approval. Such a vote would fail, and then Trump would have Senate backing to not abide by the deal, which he deems a treaty…

Trump could withdraw the U.S. from the treaty that underpins the Paris deal, which is called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This would be the most extreme option because it would take the U.S. out of all global climate diplomacy. This process would take just one year.

* We’ve seen polls that indicate Trump’s approval among his supporters might be slipping a bit. Another indicator could be what is happening with right wing media.

“Breitbart News is the #45th most trafficked website in the United States, according to rankings from Amazon’s analytics company,,” they wrote on January 9, 2017. “With over two billion pageviews generated in 2016 and 45 million unique monthly visitors, Breitbart News has now surpassed Fox News (#47), Huffington Post (#50), Washington Post (#53), and Buzzfeed (#64) in traffic.”…

Just a few months later, the numbers have a different story to tell. As of May 26, 2017, according to—the same web-ranking analytics company that Breitbart drew its numbers from in January—Fox News is the 64th most-trafficked site in the country. Huffington Post is at 60. Buzzfeed is at 50. The Washington Post, on the strength of a series of eye-popping scoops, is at 41.

Breitbart is in 281st place…

Other conservative media sites have also experienced declines in traffic in recent months, but none as pronounced as Breitbart’s. According to Alexa data, National Review Online,, The Daily Caller, and Drudge Report all saw slumps in their rankings. Over the last week, as Trump was engulfed in the Comey scandal, Fox News’s viewership dropped to third place behind CNN and MSNBC for the first time in 17 years.

* I love Philip Bumb’s post for the title alone: “The fake news is coming from inside the White House.” He starts by pointing to Trump’s tweets.

To believe Donald Trump, you must believe two largely contradictory things.

You must believe that there are a slew of leakers in the executive branch who are providing damning details to the press illegally, and who must be rooted out and punished…

You must also believe that the press makes up imaginary leakers simply to slowly and incrementally report false stories that are tangentially embarrassing to the president.

* I’m going to suggest that you read the entire thread of tweets from Richard Florida that starts with this:

* Finally, Joseph Babcock recounts his experience of living in Vietnam when President Obama paid a visit.

By the time Air Force One landed at Ton Son Nhat, Saigon felt primed for its moment. Crowds lined the streets around the President’s hotel and in front of the embassy. Everyone—students, office workers, street vendors, grandmothers—wanted a glimpse of Obama. They said his name with the flat monotone that Vietnamese speakers use when saying a word that doesn’t contain diacritics, the last syllable drawn out so that it sounded like “Obam-aaah!” People in the crowd waved little Vietnamese and American flags, a sight that was kind of amazing in itself considering that this was right around the corner from the War Remnants Museum, formerly called the Exhibition House for U.S. and Puppet Crimes.

That was captured by this video from Pete Souza:

Babcock notes that we didn’t see the same kind of thing for Trump during his trip abroad last week and drew some conclusions.

It’s not exactly surprising that the outpouring of love I saw the Vietnamese show President Obama was largely missing from President Trump’s first trip abroad. On the contrary, thousands showed up for “Trump Not Welcome” marches in Europe this week…

No matter who holds the office, the American presidency remains a symbol of power, wealth, and military strength. Those broad strokes remain pretty much constant. It’s the individual who fills in the rest, who determines whether he or she will be seen as a symbol of hope and encouragement—a person who spreads good vibes, as we might say here in Southern California—or a symbol of anger and crabbed fear.

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Sometimes the Neoconservatives are Right

Sometimes the Neoconservatives are Right

The Washington Monthly

John McCain doesn’t sound like he’s buying the idea that Jared Kushner’s efforts to set up a private line of communication with the Kremlin is normal in any way. Here’s what he said about it on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “7:30” program:

“I know some administration officials are saying this is standard procedure. I don’t think it’s standard procedure prior to the inauguration of the president of the United States by someone who is not in an appointed position,” he said. “This is becoming more and more bizarre. In fact, you can’t make it up.”

At this point, I just want to pause to point out a couple of things. First, it was John McCain who personally delivered former MI6 officer Christopher Steele’s “dodgy dossier” on Trump’s Russian connections to FBI director James Comey.

‘I did what any citizen should do. I received sensitive information and handed it to the FBI,’ he told CNN – the network which broke the story that the document existed. It was then published in full by Buzzfeed.

‘That’s why I gave it to the FBI. I don’t know if it is credible or not but the information I thought deserved to be delivered to the FBI, the appropriate agency of government.’

He added: ‘It doesn’t trouble me because I don’t know if it is accurate or not. I have no way of corroborating that.

‘The individual gave me the information. I looked at it. After receiving that information I took it to the FBI.’

One reason that John McCain was interested in these rumors is because he thinks Vladmir Putin is a bigger threat to the United States than ISIS, but another reason is that the Russians hacked his campaign. On August 12th, 2016, DCLeaks released “roughly 300 emails from Republican targets, including the 2016 campaign staff of Arizona Senator John McCain [and] South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.”

Obviously, John McCain didn’t support Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, but he seems to realize that the Russians’ interest in Trump was at least in part an effort to sideline neoconservative anti-Putin hardliners like Sen. Graham and himself. These neoconservatives would have been happy with Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, but much less so with Rand Paul or certainly Trump. That his campaign was targeted by the Russians right along with Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party is not surprising.

Yet, the neoconservatives aren’t wrong all the time, and in this case their suspicions about Russia’s interest in Trump and possible two-way collusion are about more than self-preservation. McCain is pretty slick but he and Graham are most definitely loaded for bear when it comes to Trump. If there is ever an impeachment trial in the Senate, you can be almost certain that these two Republican senators won’t be taking the president’s side.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley is Covering for Jared Kushner

Sen. Chuck Grassley is Covering for Jared Kushner

The Washington Monthly

If you’re like me, your eyes glaze over a little bit when people start talking about the intricacies of our immigration policies and the various kinds of visas we offer to foreign nationals. I certainly feel that way about the EB-5 visa, although I felt compelled to look into it since it has embroiled Jared Kushner and his family in controversy, and now Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is calling for an investigation.

The EB-5 visa was created in 1990 and put into its current form in 1993. The simplest way of understanding it is that it creates an avenue for foreigners to get permanent residence in the country (and possibly citizenship) if they’re willing to invest a million bucks in a business that will eventually employ at least ten people. There’s a provision for investing in economically needy areas that only a requires that you invest half a million. The changes made in 1993 introduced some problems and changed the nature of the program.

In order to make the program more investor-friendly, Congress enacted the 1993 Appropriations Act which amended the EB-5 program to create the “Pilot Immigration Program” — the Immigrant Investor Pilot Program (IIPP). Under the IIPP, foreign nationals could invest in a pre-approved regional center, or “economic unit [referred to as regional centers], public or private, which is involved with the promotion of economic growth, including increased export sales, improved regional productivity, job creation, or increased domestic capital investment.” Investments within a regional center provide foreign nationals the added benefit of allowing them to count jobs created both directly and indirectly for purposes of meeting 10-job creation requirement. This was intended to help potential investors to meet “the program’s stringent requirements” through passive investment. With the IIPP, the EB-5 visa became an investors visa as opposed to an entrepreneur’s visa.

Basically, the IIPP made it possible to simply invest money without having any personal connection or role with any particular project. Since it allowed privately run “regional centers,” it introduced an incentive for private citizens to solicit funds from rich foreigners using eventual American citizenship as the dangle. It didn’t take long for the program to run into controversy, as these private entities started working the regulatory agency responsible for refereeing the application process.

In c.1995 former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials formed a company called AIS that acted as intermediaries between INS and immigrant entrepreneurs in the EB-5 program. Whereas EB-5 required an investment of 500,000 AIS only required $125,000 cash with the rest — $375,000 in the form of a promissory note. AIS claimed the promissory note would “be forgiven once the immigrant’s permanent residency application was approved”. The U.S. immigration agency, which was then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), had interpreted the regulations regarding financial qualifications in a way that accepted this arrangement until c. 1998 when they were under investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). There were allegations that the INS was giving preferential treatment to AIS in EB-5 matters.

If you’re pitching a foreign millionaire on investing in your “regional center,” you’ll need to convince them that you can deliver on your end of the deal. And since your end isn’t some assurance that they’ll get a good financial return on their investment but that they’ll get the citizenship they desire, you’ll want to gain influence and control over the citizenship approval process.

This is where the Kushner family comes into it.

It’s not unusual for commercial real estate builders to utilize the EB-5 visa. Most major hotel chains have used the program to raise capital, in part because it is cheaper than borrowing from a bank. The Kushner family has a history with the EB-5, using it for example to finance a project in Journal Square in New Jersey. Just last March, Kushner Properties announced that they were abandoning a plan to use EB-5 financing to team up with a Chinese insurance company named Anbang and convert the Manhattan skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue into luxury residential units. Still, when President Trump signed his first major piece of legislation on May 5th, it included an extension of the Immigrant Investor Visa Program through September 30, 2017. Whatever else you might say about it, the program has benefitted the president since he has used it to finance some of his Trump-branded building projects.

Chuck Grassley has had problems with the EB-5 for a while now, describing it as a program that “has been rife with fraud and national security weaknesses.” In February, he teamed with Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) to introduce a bill that would terminate the EB-5.

What he wants to investigate at the moment is what he considers fraudulent representations made by a Chinese firm named Qiaowai that was marketing a Kushner Industries project in Jersey City to Chinese investors. That Grassley is concerned about this is understandable, but it appears to be missing the larger point. And that’s a point that is not lost on the president:

The most serious point of contention between the president and his son-in-law, two people familiar with the interactions said, was a video clip this month of Mr. Kushner’s sister Nicole Meyer pitching potential investors in Beijing on a Kushner Companies condominium project in Jersey City. At one point, Ms. Meyer — who remains close to Mr. Kushner — dangled the availability of EB-5 visas to the United States as an enticement for Chinese financiers willing to spend $500,000 or more.

For Mr. Trump, Ms. Meyer’s performance violated two major rules: Politically, it undercut his immigration crackdown, and in a personal sense, it smacked of profiteering off Mr. Trump — one of the sins that warrants expulsion from his orbit.

In the following days during routine West Wing meetings, the president made several snarky, disparaging comments about Mr. Kushner’s family and the visas that were clearly intended to express his annoyance, two aides said. Mr. Kushner did not respond, at least not in earshot.

In simple terms, the president is angry that the Kushner family is using his name to promise citizenship to prospective Chinese investors, while Chuck Grassley is angry that a Chinese company used those assurances to make the same claim. This looks like a way for Grassley to continue his war on the EB-5 visa while actually shifting the accountability for this case away from the Kushner family.

This is a clever way for Grassley to protect the White House while seeming to be a tough guy. But it’s fraudulent. There are legitimate moral and national security questions about the EB-5 visa, but the main problem has been that it invites people to commit corrupt acts. There could be no more corrupt act than having the president (or his staff) making private assurances to potential investors that they’ll get citizenship in return for their investments in private commercial investment vehicles.

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When Should We Use the ‘T’ Word?

When Should We Use the ‘T’ Word?

The Washington Monthly

The presidency of Donald J. Trump, with its ludicrous inauguration crowd estimates, 4 AM tweets, and non-stop gaffes, is sometimes difficult for grownups to take seriously in any sort of sustained way. But with the allegation that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law and closest adviser, attempted to establish a secret communications link to the Kremlin, the story has taken a far darker turn. It is no longer Steve Martin’s jerk stumbling around Washington; it’s now closer to Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate.

One senses discomfort and a groping for proper explanations among the prestige media’s talking heads. On MSNBC, Brian Williams interviewed author Jon Meacham, who serves as a sort of ambulance driver whenever establishment views need to be rushed to the scene. He compared Kushner’s behavior to President Kennedy’s contacting Nikita Krushchev through a back channel during the Cuban missile crisis, and FDR’s use of Harry Hopkins as a roving ambassador without portfolio. To be sure, Meacham made the comparison unfavorably, suggesting that Kushner had pecuniary motives.

But bringing up such examples as an analogy fails on many levels. The glaring difference was that Roosevelt and Kennedy were sitting presidents of the United States, one prosecuting a world war and the other trying to avoid nuclear annihilation. Kushner, on the Trump transition team, was not in charge: he had no lawful authority to do anything of a diplomatic nature, much less treat with an adversarial government under U.S. sanctions in order to use their secret communications. Trump and his handlers, being ignorant of history, would probably never have thought of those historical examples as an alibi, but Meacham has now furnished them with “diplomatic back channel” precedents that we can be sure the White House press office will trot out as a rationale.

An interesting aside from Meacham was his observation that the poor, presumably addlepated American public, preoccupied as they are with just paying their mortgages, might have trouble grasping the implications of the Kushner revelation. This expression of the soft bigotry of low expectations dovetails nicely with the standard Republican talking point stating that, gosh, all this Russia stuff is so convoluted and confusing that ordinary folk in Real America just don’t care about it.

To be fair to the media, there have been contrasting voices. John McLaughlin, a former acting CIA director, told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that if an intelligence officer had engaged in Kushner’s purported behavior, it would be considered espionage. CNN’s Dana Bash, by contrast, put on a striking display of clueless gullibility in her efforts to create extenuating circumstances around the Kushner-Kislyak incident as reported. Kushner, in view of his tender age of 36, was “naïve” to discuss setting up a back channel employing the communications of an adversarial power’s intelligence services. Is a high-rolling New York real estate mogul someone we normally associate with gormless naiveté? Particularly when he was the driving force behind dumping New Jersey Governor Chris Christie from leadership of the Trump transition team as an act of sweet revenge for Christie’s having prosecuted Kushner’s father?  The fact that the report said that Lieutenant General Mike Flynn — who received payments from Russian entities (that he failed to report) — was present during the call, also suggests that this was something other than a rookie mistake.

But we must award the championship for prestige media apologetics to Steven Erlanger, the New York Times’s London bureau chief. On CNN, he declared that Kushner’s secretive discussion, (reportedly omitted on his security clearance application, a potential felony) was “not collusion, just statecraft,” and made it sound as if the Trump team had a justifiable, rather than guilty, reason not to trust the U.S. government agencies that Trump would soon lead.

No doubt all news rooms have a policy against seeming to convict a person in the media. But it should equally apply that reporters and commentators are under no obligation to dream up all manner of exculpatory scenarios. If the general public is in fact confused by the complexity of allegations about Russian interference in U.S. elections, that circumstance may stem in part from the media’s excessive caveating, dragging in of side issues and irrelevancies, and its obsessive need for false-equivalence “balancing.” Understanding the Watergate conspiracy does not hinge on whether the flower pot Bob Woodward placed a red flag in to signal his source contained geraniums or hydrangeas, or whether Richard Nixon’s phlebitis was acting up.

The news that started it all, the Washington Post’s reporting on the supposed back channel request, contained a caveat of its own. What if Ambassador Kislyak was salting his reports with disinformation? One supposes that theory must be considered, but it makes no sense. Why would the Russians fabricate a story that could only discredit an incoming administration whose policies towards Russia and NATO the Kremlin favored? The adverse publicity would make it more, not less, difficult for the Trump administration to lift the economic sanctions that were inconveniencing the oligarchs around President Vladimir Putin. They might try to discredit Hillary Clinton or Emanuel Macron, certainly, but not Trump and his paladins.

It is no secret that diminishing NATO’s strength and influence is the top priority of Russian foreign policy; from the Kremlin’s point of view, the alliance’s influence in Eastern Europe is a significant threat to its interests. It is hardly demonizing Russia to point this out: states have differing interests, and come into conflict over them. One could also observe that it is in the interests of both the United States and Russia to develop a tolerable modus vivendi whereby such conflicts as arise could be mitigated.

But it is pretty clear by now that Trump is looking for something altogether different than that. As Josh Marshall points out, on his European tour Trump behaved in a manner precisely designed to sow discord and distrust within the Atlantic Alliance. This aspect was not a feature of the significant improvement of ties between the United States and the Soviet Union in President Reagan’s second term and during George H.W. Bush’s presidency. The gratuitous frictions Trump is creating certainly benefit Moscow, but it is far from clear what America gains. As Marshall says, “Trump insists on doing more or less exactly what Putin would want of him entirely on his own.”

Even the body language on display during the NATO summit, when Trump was in proximity to British Prime Minister Theresa May, leader of America’s closest ally, stood in sharp contrast to the yuk-fest that ensued when he chatted with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office (a meeting from which U.S. media were pointedly excluded, but one in which the Russian state-owned news organization TASS was allowed). To find something comparable in diplomacy, one would have to go back to photos of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, where we find the normally stone-faced and inscrutable Stalin beaming like the cat that swallowed the canary.

Maybe, as Morgan Freeman said in The Big Bounce, sometimes things are exactly as they appear. Perhaps the saga of Trump and the Russians is not some convoluted shaggy dog story, but is just what it looks like. What do we do then? Human beings are not comfortable thinking about what they regard as the unthinkable.

But black-swan events, like 9/11, the global financial collapse, or maybe someday, another Chicxulub asteroid event, do happen. Is it thinkable that a president of the United States could commit treason? Or is the office of the president, accoutered as it is with two centuries of executive powers and privileges and accustomed to deference in foreign policy from the other two branches of government, for all practical purposes immune to the charge? In the case at hand, does the will of the king constitute the law of land?

Apart from the Civil War, the only treason case involving a very senior official was the treason trial of Aaron Burr. That is not quite comparable, however, as Burr was a former vice president, not a sitting president. But author Ken Hughes has made a compelling case in his book Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate that Richard Nixon, while running for president in 1968, committed treason when he engaged Anna Chennault to induce the South Vietnamese government to stonewall the Paris Peace Talks and improve his chances of defeating Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey. Sifting through the Johnson and Nixon tapes and declassified documents, Hughes further reveals that then-president Lyndon B. Johnson knew about it and characterized it as treason. Yet he talked himself out of going public with it because the American people were not mature enough to hear something so shocking as to shake their faith in the system.

We have the succeeding Nixon presidency and the Watergate conspiracy as a tribute to LBJ’s low estimation of the public’s capacity to absorb less than edifying news about their politicians. Ironically, Watergate itself began in Nixon’s paranoia about the leak of the Pentagon Papers, a retrospective analysis of the Vietnam War. According to Hughes, Nixon brooded that the authors of the papers, working under a Democratic administration, may have known something about the Nixon-Chennault back channel and were thus in a position to damage him.

Johnson’s timely intervention might have spared us not only the trauma of Watergate; conceivably a Vietnam peace agreement could have been signed several years earlier and spared countless lives and immense destruction. LBJ feared the American people’s disillusion if they knew the truth. Perhaps it is telling that a half century on, pundits like Jon Meacham imply that the people are inattentive dullards who can’t grasp the truth. It reminds us of what Marshall McLuhan said: “Only the small secrets need to be protected. The large ones are kept secret by public incredulity.”

A well-known opinion columnist has just cautioned me that “treason” is a powerful word, and one should not dissipate its power at this early stage. That is something to consider carefully. But “obstruction of justice” is also a powerful phrase, and the media appears to have surmounted their inhibition about using it.

Like other wrenching events in our history — Southern secession, the Great Depression and the associated rise of totalitarianism, the turbulence of the Vietnam era — the Trump presidency is a Rorschach test of the character of the American people. The president’s fate lies in the hands of our elected officials, but facts and evidence will not make them move unless and until the people send an unmistakable signal that compels them to move.

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Trump’s Team Intent on Setting Up Back Channel Communications With Russia

Trump’s Team Intent on Setting Up Back Channel Communications With Russia

The Washington Monthly

It is worth noting that at least three members of the Trump administration have now lied (or failed to disclose) meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak: Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner.

We don’t know what Sessions discussed with Kislyak during his meetings with the ambassador. But I’ll refer you to Martin Longman’s excellent documentation of the events that surrounded the private meeting between the two in September.

Flynn’s lies about his meetings with the ambassador in late December 2016 led to him being fired as Trump’s National Security Advisor after they were made public. But a couple of weeks ago we learned this:

Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy…

As I pointed out at the time, there was also a clandestine meeting in January between Erik Prince, who had been consulting with the Trump transition team, and a Russian close to President Vladi­mir Putin “as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump.”

In March, the White House confirmed that Jared Kushner—along with Michael Flynn—met with Kislyak at Trump Tower in early December. Last Friday, Reuters reported this:

U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, seven current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.

Those contacts included two phone calls between April and November last year, two of the sources said.

On the same day, the Washington Post reported that, during the meeting at Trump Tower in December, Kushner, Flynn and Kislyak had discussed setting up “a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring.”

What we can learn by putting these pieces of the puzzle together is that several members of the Trump team were intent on setting up a back channel of communication between the Trump administration and Russia that would bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, with Kushner going so far as to suggest using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States. Flynn discussed it with Kislyak immediately following the election, Flynn and Kushner followed up on that in early December, and Prince was dispatched to a clandestine meeting to talk about it in January.

Over the weekend, with the focus on Kushner, the public line from the White House was not to deny his role in this, but to suggest that it was “normal and acceptable,” which is absurd. The fact that Prince was still working on it in January indicates that it wasn’t simply meant as a means to communicate during the transition, but was a way to bypass our national security apparatus during his presidency, at a time when the Trump campaign was under investigation for colluding with the Russians to influence the U.S. election.

While exploring how worried Kushner should be about these revelations, Ryan Lizza reminds us of his role in Trump’s decision to fire Comey. He points to reports that indicated Kushner “had urged Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Comey,” as well as the fact that when Rosenstein appointed a special prosecutor, more than a dozen aids met with the president to discuss how to respond.

“Most of those gathered recommended that the president adopt a conciliatory stance and release a statement accepting Mr. Rosenstein’s decision and embracing a swift investigation that would clear the cloud of suspicion hovering over the West Wing,” the paper said. But there was one dissenter: Kushner, who was “urging the president to counterattack.”

This reporting makes it clear that it wasn’t just Trump who had a conflict of interest when deciding on whether to fire Comey…less has been said about Kushner’s conflict. Should Kushner, who we now know is under some level of scrutiny by the F.B.I., be advising his father-in-law to fire the F.B.I. director and “counterattack” the special counsel?

As has so often been the case with the revelations coming from the Trump/Russia probe, this is not the behavior of someone who was engaging in negotiations that were “normal and acceptable.” We don’t yet know why members of the Trump team were so intent on setting up a back channel of communication between the administration and Russia. We also don’t know whether or not they were ultimately successful in doing so. What we do know is that they were working on this since shortly after the election and that they have repeatedly lied about it while attempting to obstruct the investigation.

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The Other Main Obstacle to Single Payer

The Other Main Obstacle to Single Payer

The Washington Monthly

Last week, Nancy LeTourneau accurately observed:

There’s been some chatter lately among liberals that the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will likely run on a platform that includes a commitment to single payer health insurance. While that would be appealing to a lot of people for a whole host of reasons, it doesn’t take into consideration the ongoing challenge of actually putting forth a reasonable plan.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the 2020 Democratic platform eschews talk of single payer: Democrats and the larger progressive movement are, unfortunately, nowhere near ready to win the fight for single payer (we will leave aside, for now, the question of whether single payer should even be the appropriate terminology).

Health care reform advocate Jacki Schechner suggested last week that federal single payer is doomed unless the country embraces the separation of billionaire and state:

Until we get money out of politics, it’s not gonna happen. Because we have too much money that’s tied up in our political system. I love the momentum [behind single payer]. I love that more and more Democrats are on board. I love that we can get some momentum [among Democrats] in the House, and if we can take over the House and the Senate, then we’ll be well-poised to pitch something like that, but, having seen how the sausage is made, and seeing how money impacts the way people vote, both in the House and the Senate, I’m afraid of that wholesale change [not] being an actual, tenable goal…

Schechner called for a renewed push for a federal public option, viewing this as a more achievable goal. As for why single payer might not be achievable, she noted:

I’m hesitant, because [single payer advocates are] in the realm of people who pay attention to politics and who know how these things work. And I think about the everyday Americans who aren’t focused on the details of this, who are just worried about [things like] getting food on the table and getting their kids to school and making it to work on time, and they hear something like “single payer” and they think nationalized health care, national health care system, bureaucracy, waiting in line. I mean, it’s one of the reasons why people didn’t understand [that] the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are the same thing, because they heard “Obamacare” and automatically had this idea of a big giant government bureaucracy and decided they hated it, and then when they found out that it was the same thing as the Affordable Care Act, now the Affordable Care Act is more popular than it’s ever been…I don’t think the messaging can overcome [right-wing attacks on single payer]. I just don’t think that you can convince people who don’t understand how health care works [about the benefits of single payer]…they don’t understand that it’s a single-payer [system], not a single-provider [system]. I don’t think people get that nuance, and I think it’s harder to explain that to people than you’d think. The status quo is very powerful. One attack ad can derail an entire plan.

Schechner’s line about “one attack ad” hints at another reason why the prospects of federal single payer are bleak: Democrats and progressives cannot, at this point, win the media war over health care policy, as they simply do not have enough of a presence on cable news to make the case for single payer, and to push back against right-wing attacks on the concept.

Next month marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Michael Moore’s Sicko, a brilliant, horrifying documentary about the savage inequalities of the American health care system. You may remember that just a few weeks after Sicko was released, CNN’s Sanjay Gupta opened fire on the film. In his response, Moore famously observed:

[T]hat report was so biased. I can’t imagine what pharmaceutical company ad’s coming up right after our break here.

Why don’t you tell the truth to the American people? I mean, I wish that CNN and the other mainstream media would just for once tell the truth about what’s going on in this country, whether it’s with healthcare — I don’t care what it is. I mean, you guys have such a poor track record.

And for me to come on here and have to listen to that kind of crap. I mean, seriously, I haven’t been on your show now for three years. The last time I was on, you ran a similar piece about Fahrenheit 9/11 saying oh, this can’t be true what he’s saying about the war, how it’s going to be a quagmire, the weapons of mass destruction…

Why don’t you start off, actually, with my first appearance back here on your show in three years and maybe apologize to me for saying that three years ago, because it turned out everything I said in Fahrenheit was true. Everything has come to happen.

Everything I said. I mean, I was — I took you in that film to Walter Reed Hospital and it took three years before you or any of the rest of the mainstream media would go to Walter Reed Hospital and see what was happening to our troops. So for me to have to sit here and listen again to more crap about socialized medicine or how the Canadians have it worse than us and all this, all the statistics show that we have far worse healthcare than these other industrialized countries.

We’re the only ones that don’t have it free and universal. And, you know, you said that Germany was the only one that was better than us in terms of wait times. The Commonwealth Fund last year showed of the top six countries, we were second to last, next to Canada. It showed that Britain, for instance, 71 percent of the British public, when they call to see a doctor, get to see the doctor that day or the next day. It’s 69 percent in Germany. It’s 66 percent in Australia. And you’re the ones who are fudging the facts. You fudged the facts to the American people now for I don’t know how long about this issue, about the war…

If Democrats were to go all-in on single payer at this point, “fudging the facts” would be the order of the day on cable news, with opponents of single payer outnumbering and drowning out the voices of advocates–all in the interest of “fairness,” of course. (Don’t think that MSNBC, whose coverage of health-care inequalities was of incalculable importance during the run-up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, would provide any relief in the Andrew Lack era.) Fox in particular would weaponize race and gender as never before in the attack on single payer, running daily segments raising the prospect of “illegal aliens” and “gangbangers” having “free health care” funded by middle-class white taxpayers and “transgender surgeries” and “abortion on demand” subsidized by evangelical Christians. Support for single payer would be squashed thanks to this media onslaught.

I’ve previously noted the unforced error, from a climate standpoint, of Al Gore selling Current TV nearly five years ago. Had Current survived, perhaps it could have played a role in combating right-wing disinformation about single payer, clarifying the benefits of such a system, going beyond where even Sicko went in terms of highlighting the dangers of the status quo. As it stands now, with no cable-news platform actually controlled by progressives (not hosts, but executives) to provide a forum for single-payer advocates to make their case to viewers who aren’t health-care policy wonks, those advocates would be going into a political war unarmed.

We may bear witness to an early casualty of such a war in California, where, as George Skelton notes, the effort to push for statewide single payer may already be DOA. The merits of federal single payer are not in dispute. The ability to win the fight to implement such a policy is.

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There’s Only So Much We Can Do…

There’s Only So Much We Can Do…

The Washington Monthly

I was going to just call it a night here on this Memorial Day weekend, but I couldn’t just put the computer away without noting this bit of insanity:

A deepening budget crisis here has forced schools across the Sooner State to make painful decisions. Class sizes have ballooned, art and foreign-language programs have shrunk or disappeared, and with no money for new textbooks, children go without. Perhaps the most significant consequence: Students in scores of districts are now going to school just four days a week.

The shift not only upends what has long been a fundamental rhythm of life for families and communities. It also runs contrary to the push in many parts of the country to provide more time for learning — and daily reinforcement — as a key way to improve achievement, especially among poor children.

But funding for classrooms has been shrinking for years in this deep-red state as lawmakers have cut taxes, slicing away hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue in what some Oklahomans consider a cautionary tale about the real-life consequences of the small-government approach favored by Republican majorities in Washington and statehouses nationwide.

School districts staring down deep budget holes have turned to shorter weeks in desperation as a way to save a little bit of money and persuade increasingly hard-to-find teachers to take some of the nation’s lowest-paying jobs.

We spend a lot of time on the left speculating and adducing arguments about to what degree conservative voters are motivated by prejudice, economics or other factors.

But when you read stories like this one, or about how rural conservatives in Southern Oregon have cut taxes so low that they can’t even fund their own police force, you have to take a few steps back and wonder. These people aren’t just hurting others, and they’re not just pushing minorities or some faraway urban elites. They’re not just trying to bring the low-skill jobs back.

At a certain point it starts to take on the trappings of a mass ideological cult, little different from the Maoists of the Great Leap Forward or the widest eyed Jacobins of the French Revolution. Many of them are True Believers who will ride the supply-side, anti-government tiger deep into the jungle of no return even if it means the destruction of their communities and the deaths of their loved ones.

In the states where these people hold sway, there’s not much that can even be done to save them. If the people in these communities are willing to destroy themselves for the sake of a warped ideological purity, the rest of us can sometimes only try to shield ourselves from the destruction while welcoming those who wish to escape.

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Yet Another Republican Burns His Credibility to Defend Trump and Kushner. Why?

Yet Another Republican Burns His Credibility to Defend Trump and Kushner. Why?

The Washington Monthly

It is no longer surprising when Trump and his inner circle are revealed to to have done something corrupt, self-dealing or even borderline treasonous. Their characters are well spoken for by now. Of more interest as a character study are those who throw their credibility onto the fire to defend this Administration, often knowing that they will be burned for it in short order.

The latest Republican to immolate his respectability is Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who is actively spinning away Jared Kushner’s attempt to use secret Russian back channels to Moscow away from the eyes of American intelligence. Kelly knows that Kushner’s attempt to use actual Russian intelligence equipment to talk to Moscow is wrong. He knows that there is no credible innocent explanation for it. He knows what whatever the reason is that Kushner wanted the secret communications channel will almost certainly be revealed in all its seedy turpitude eventually.

So why do it? Why not stay silent? Why not simply resign?

The same question could be asked of Sean Spicer, who consistently allows Trump to humiliate him before the entire world and yet masochistically persists in his own victimization. The highly respected H.R. McMaster did likewise recently. Kelly-Anne Conway herself is reported to have said she “needed a shower” after defending Trump one evening.

Why do they all do it? Few of these people supported Trump against his more conventional challengers in the Republican presidential primary. The judgment of history will not be kind to them. They could make more money in the private sector. Their loyalty to Trump will not be reciprocated by a President who is more than willing to trample subordinates who do his dirty work.

So why do it? When this sordid era is finally over and the recriminating tell-alls begin, this will be one of the greatest questions: how did all of these career professionals allow themselves to be corralled into fronting and covering for this Administration? Is it fear? A misguided sense of professional duty? The sort of mass groupthink that causes market panics?

Whatever it is, it’s also how dictators and strongmen normalize and solidify their positions in formerly open societies. Whatever impulse is driving the Kellys and Spicers of the world to stick by Trump rather than expose him, is the impulse that allows democracies to die.

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