Student Activists Demand Harvard Sever Ties with Teach for America

In These Times - October 10, 2014

Teach for America, long associated with recruiting elite college students to teach in low-income communities, is facing mounting opposition from students at the very universities from which it recruits.

On September 26, members of Harvard’s Students Labor Action Movement (SLAM) delivered a letter to the school’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, demanding that Harvard discontinue its relationship with TFA unless the organization makes major reforms.

These Harvard students are part of a national movement headed by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which contends that TFA plays a major part in the privatization of public education by policymakers. TFA was originally founded to fill a nationwide teacher shortage in the 1990’s but has since taken on an influential role in the education reform movement. TFA sends teachers to non-union charter schools, and many of its alumni have become prominent advocates for market-based education reforms like test-based evaluations of teachers and the elimination of teacher tenure. Through its 501(c)4 spinoff Leadership for Educational Equity, TFA has been described as playing key roles in education policy, school boards and local and national politics, and has injected big bucks into local school board elections like one in Minnesota this fall.

USAS is urging TFA to only send recruits to communities with teaching shortages, provide more training for teachers and end its relationship with corporations like Exxon Mobil and JP Morgan. TFA’s corporate partners grant signing bonuses to students who defer high-paying jobs and join TFA.

Harvard students gave university officials until October 8 to respond, but the school has yet to take any action. On Wednesday, TFA’s co-CEO Matthew Kramer, himself a Harvard alum, responded to the students’ campaign. He acknowledged that the organization’s aims have changed but that there are still not enough talented teachers in low-income communities.

“Everywhere in the country principals say, it is hard to find great people who want to teach in my school with my kids,” Kramer told the Harvard Crimson. “Having access to more people who want to do that is absolutely critical.”

In 2013, Harvard was the top source of TFA’s recruits among medium-sized schools, according to the organization’s statistics.

In recent years, TFA has come under fire for its controversial approach to education. The program recruits recent college graduates and places them in low-income schools for two years. Participants often report being ill-prepared for their difficult teaching environments, as the program trains its teachers for only five weeks before they begin teaching.

TFA members often replace more qualified and experienced teachers, and as public schools slash their budgets, they are increasingly relying on TFA recruits to fill their ranks. For example, after one of Chicago Public Schools’ recent rounds of layoffs of over a thousand teachers, the district allocated more funding for TFA.

Launched in March, the USAS campaign’s ultimate goal is to stop TFA from recruiting on college campuses. This past spring, it embarked on a “truth tour” to “expose the dark side of corporate education reform.”

Immigration Reform Could Swing Two Key Races In Colorado

The Huffington Post - August 16, 2014

WASHINGTON — When House Republicans voted resoundingly earlier this month in favor of a bill to dismantle protections for young undocumented immigrants, House Democrats vowed they would make sure it hurt Republicans politically.

That was largely a longer-term threat, based on the Republican Party’s Latino voter problem and the possibility it could doom GOP chances in the 2016 presidential race. In general, the Latino vote isn’t expected to swing many races this year.

But Colorado contests might be the exception, and Republican politicians there seem to know it. Reps. Cory Gardner and Mike Coffman were two of only 11 Republicans who opposed the House bill to gut protections for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Both have also softened their rhetoric on immigration, despite having opposed attempts at comprehensive reform before.

Democrats and progressive activists in Colorado have made immigration reform a key issue in the campaigns against Gardner, who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall (D), and Coffman, who is running for re-election. They don’t plan to let either candidate off easy for his prior statements and positions on immigration — regardless of the recent vote for Dreamers — as they aim to bring out Latino voters in November.

"Sure, we’re glad that they voted the right way, but did they have some huge conversion about their feelings on immigration, or was it like a last-minute, politically motivated, kind-of-calculating vote?" said Patty Kupfer, managing director of America’s Voice. "It doesn’t really change very much."

America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group, is currently working on the ground in Colorado.

Latinos make up 14 percent of the eligible electorate in Colorado this year. They are 20 percent of the vote in Coffman’s district.

In an election cycle without a single dominant issue, immigration is competing for airtime against a host of other topics, from health care to foreign policy. But activist organizations in Colorado, both those that push for immigration reform and those that work on Latino voter outreach, believe that immigration may make a difference in November.

"When you’re talking about races that look as close as these are, it just takes one issue or one constituency group to tilt the scales," Amy Runyon-Harms, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, said. "Immigration reform impacts real people’s lives, and their past votes against immigration reform have hurt Colorado families."

According to The Denver Post, the race between Coffman, a three-term incumbent, and Democrat Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker, is “one of the few competitive House races in the country.” As for Gardner’s effort to oust Udall, theHuffPost Pollster analysis, based on available public polling, has shown the candidates within 2 percentage points of each other for months.

In particular, these advocacy groups aim to educate voters on the Republican candidates’ mixed records on immigration reform. For instance, while Gardner may be attempting to move toward the middle on the issue, he voted for a 2013 bill, introduced by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), that would have ended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama administration policy that gives Dreamers a break on deportation.

Gardner’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on criticism of his immigration positions.

Immigration reform advocates have similarly accused Coffman of shifting his stance for political gain. Coffman’s district was redrawn in 2012, resulting in a more diverse demographic makeup. Two years before, he had voted against the Dream Act, which would give legal status to Dreamers. Just this week, the Colorado Democratic Party went after him for joking about possibly being deported.

Coffman campaign spokesman Tyler Sandberg said the congressman is committed to finding bipartisan solutions to immigration reform, citing two bills that Coffman introduced this year with bipartisan support.

"He is frustrated with leadership of both parties for their inability to find a path down the middle to fix our broken immigration system," Sandberg said.

While progressive advocacy groups are focused now on the 2014 elections, they see Colorado as a microcosm of the bigger immigration battles that might play out in 2016. Between now and then, the groups argue, Republicans will have to strategize how to reach out to Latino voters on immigration — or risk alienating them completely.

Kupfer said the recent confrontation between King and two Dreamers, as potential 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) fled the scene, provides “a perfect metaphor for how the Republican Party is currently dealing with this issue.”

"They’ve pigeonholed themselves into a completely untenable position, and they have nothing to do but run away," she said.

Voter education for Spanish-speaking citizens is a big part of the advocacy groups’ political efforts. ProgressNow Colorado created candidate accountability websites in both English and Spanish and is planning Spanish-language billboards that will show where candidates stand on immigration reform. This month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began running Spanish-language ads targeting Coffman. “Failure! Congressman Coffman is part of the problem, and his leaders are hurting our DREAMers. He’s failing our community. Shame on him!” the ads read.

Other groups are focusing on grassroots tactics. Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan organization that supports immigration reform, is encouraging voters to attend town halls during the congressional recess this month, according to its Colorado state director, Carla Castedo.

Kupfer said one big challenge is translating Latino anger over congressional inaction on immigration into actual votes. Traditionally, voter turnout is lower in midterm elections, and voters have multiple issues on their minds this year.

Castedo, however, thinks the fact that immigration policy personally affects the Latino community is enough motivation to turn out and vote.

"People are really fired up. When the community is getting attacked, people have a reason to vote because their friends and family are being attacked," she said. "We have our DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] students, who say to their U.S. citizen friends, ‘Hey, I can’t vote, but can you vote for me?’ It gives the community more of a reason to vote and show their power in numbers."

House Democrats Fume Over GOP’s Border Crisis Bill

This was a busy week on Capitol Hill. I’ve been contributing reporting to various pieces by HuffPost’s reporters, particularly to coverage of the border crisis by the fabulous Elise Foley. I have also gotten to attend some events on my own and write standalone pieces.

The Huffington Post - August 1, 2014

WASHINGTON — House Democrats delivered a full-throated condemnation of the revamped GOP border bill on Friday, calling the bill “mean-spirited” and stressing its purely political purposes.

Flanked by Congressional Hispanic Caucus members and Democratic leaders, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused Republicans of creating further polarization on the issue of immigration reform rather than looking for compromise.

"Instead of responding to the concerns and objections, Republicans have moved more to the right," she said at a press conference. "Not to the correct, but to the right."

Many of the members seemed most critical of the provisions to take away the right of due process for unaccompanied minors and to end President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented young people who came to the U.S. years ago to stay. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) called the push to end DACA “mean-spirited,” and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) deemed the revamped provisions in the new bill “some of the harshest, most draconian policies they could think of.”

"It is unfortunate that Republicans are playing partisan games with a bill that has no chance of passing the Senate or being signed into law," Hoyer said. "In other words, it is simply a message they want to send, not a solution they want to effect."

The Democrats hinted that immigration would continue to be a key political issue dividing the two parties. During the press conference, they reiterated their support for comprehensive immigration reform and went after Republicans for alienating Hispanic voters. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) accused Republicans of “destroying diversity in this country” and making the unaccompanied minors “victims of politics.”

Passing the GOP border bill could hurt Republicans’ chances of making inroads with Latino voters in the midterm elections and in 2016 — a point Democrats will likely seize on.

"We’re looking at possibly one of the most anti-Hispanic Congresses in generations," Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) said.

Perhaps angriest of all was Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who represents two of Chicago’s biggest Latino neighborhoods. He fumed as he decried what he called the Republicans’ “hatefulness toward an immigrant community” and noted that Republicans, who made Hispanic outreach a priority after their electoral defeat in 2012, have forgotten those they once deemed a priority.

"It is as though they have amnesia and have forgotten and abandoned that road. They have taken the road of those who are filled with spitefulness and hatred toward our community," he said, with his voice rising. "We will soon cure them of that amnesia, come this election and every election moving forward."

The members blasted the hypocrisy of Republicans voting to sue Obama on Wednesday and then calling on Thursday for the president to use his executive authority to resolve the border crisis.

"It’s never a good idea and a good solution to sue the president of the United States for doing his job, when you’re not willing to do your job here in the House of Representatives," Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said.

"It’s the classic case of wanting to have it both ways. Which is it?" asked Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.).

Costa, called the bill a “fig leaf,” saying that it was “cynical” for the House GOP to vote on a bill that will not pass the Senate and will, therefore, not become law.

Lujan pointed a finger at the efforts of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in torpedoing the House bill Thursday. Some House Republicans said Cruz talked them into not voting for the bill. Because the bill lacked the votes need to pass, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pulled it from consideration Thursday.

Garcia said he was “appalled” by Cruz’s actions in jeopardizing the vote, laying into the fact that Cruz himself is an immigrant.

"As a Cuban-American who realizes that I have special immigratory rights, I am appalled that Senator Cruz, who not only received it from this country but from his native Canada, those special migratory rights, leads the charge to strip away people’s rights. It’s absolutely unconscionable."

"Where are you really from?"

On Friday, this story went viral—and for good reason. An lawmaker mistaking two senior government officials for foreigners is never a good situation for anyone involved. For the rest of us, it’s comical but in that cringe-worthy, face-palm-y, “OMG, I can’t believe this is happening” way.

I am sad to report that this is not uncommon, even in 21st century America.

Like many fellow first-generation Americans, I am prone to the question: “Where are you really from?” After rolling my eyes, I always answer the question the same way: “My parents are from China.” I make sure to point out that it’s my parents who are from China, not me. 

On occasion, I get asked why I speak English so well, which, when you think about it, is actually kind of a hilarious question. It would reflect pretty poorly on the American education system if I, a person born and raised in an English-speaking country, spoke poor English! 

A relevant video that hopefully belabors the point:

Fortunately, these scenarios don’t happen to me all the time, but the fact that they do happen is alarming. The way some people instinctively categorize people based on whether they do or do not belong here is endlessly troublesome. And the connection this has to race and ethnicity is equally concerning. Whiteness somehow implies Americanness.

As this piece in The Atlantic points out, this phenomenon extends to far too many immigrant groups, from Muslim-Americans post 9/11, to Hispanics (apparently a third of Americans think most Hispanics are undocumented immigrants), to our very own Kenyan socialist president. (Aside: that video might be one of my favorite Obama moments.)

Women Are Underrepresented In Politics, But It’s Not For The Reason You Think

The Huffington Post - July 22, 2014

WASHINGTON — Thirty years ago, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman named to a major party’s presidential ticket when the then-New York congresswoman won the Democratic vice presidential nomination on July 19, 1984.

Since then, women have made many strides in the political arena. The current Congress contains a record number of women: 20 serve in the Senate, and 82 serve in the House of Representatives.

Nevertheless, women are still underrepresented in and less likely to run for political office at all levels of government, from local to national.

But it’s not for the reason you may think. New research from the Brookings Institution, published this month, debunks the common claim that fewer women run for political office because of family concerns and responsibilities.

Jennifer Lawless, a Brookings senior fellow who also directs the Women and Politics Institute at American University, analyzed data from a 2011 study that surveyed a national random sample of “equally credentialed” women and men working in law, business, education and politics — four fields from which political candidates commonly emerge. According to Lawless’ paper, there were “no remarkable socio-demographic or professional differences” between the men and the women.

Sixty-two percent of male respondents answered that they had considered running for office, while only 45 percent of female respondents said they had. But family structure and family roles did not account for the 17 percent gap. The gap is virtually the same across differing family structures and levels of family responsibility. In other words, women with children under the age of 7 or women who shoulder the majority of household tasks were basically no more or less likely than other women or than men in the same situation to consider running for office.

"Family roles and responsibilities exert no impact on potential candidates’ decisions to run for office — and that is the case for both women and men," Lawless concluded in her paper.Yet the perception persists that family is the deciding factor for women. Lawless begins her paper by noting how Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy announcement this April set off speculation that being a grandmother would affect Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions. Vice President Joe Biden, another potential 2016 candidate, has faced no such questions, even though he has five grandchildren.

Female candidates generally are asked far more questions about family issues than their male counterparts, which reinforces the public assumption that women weigh family concerns more heavily when deciding to run.

But the burden of family is not why women are less likely to run, according to Lawless. The critical factor, she argues, is that women are less likely to be encouraged to run and less likely to be considered as a potential candidate when a position opens up.

"Political gatekeepers tend to recruit from their own networks, and those are men who tend to operate in pretty male-dominated networks," Lawless said in an interview. "So there’s not much evidence to suggest there’s any overt bias against potential female candidates. It’s just that they are not the ones that the electoral gatekeepers are surrounding themselves with. They’re not the immediate names that come to mind."

It is also a matter of negative self-perception and self-doubt among women.

"Women are very likely to believe that when they run for office, they don’t do as well as men. There’s no empirical evidence to support that," said Lawless. "When women run, they actually perform just as well on Election Day, they’re able to raise just as much money, and generally speaking, their media coverage looks very much the same. But what we found was that women who are well-situated to run for office don’t know that and don’t think that. So they believe they’re not qualified because they think women have to be twice as good to get half as far."

Those who recruit political candidates often share this misperception, Lawless said, and are thus less likely to consider women for political races.

She understands why many people still assume that existing gender roles undermine women’s political ambitions.

"Women are still disproportionately responsible for shouldering the majority of the household tasks and the child care, and so as long as that’s still the reality, I think it’s an easy place for people to go and assume that because there’s not equality or equity on that dimension, it translates into politics," Lawless said. "We’re all familiar with a woman who does more than her spouse at home, so it’s a very easy reference point."

Moreover, she said that family roles and responsibilities still play some role in political decision-making because they “make it far more complex and complicated for women to navigate the political arena.”

"It just doesn’t make them less interested in doing it," Lawless said, adding, "It’s not precluding them from being politically ambitious, but it is to say they probably still have three jobs to juggle instead of two when they throw their hats into the ring."

Lawless herself ran for a congressional seat in Rhode Island in 2006 and noted that she felt she was treated the same as male candidates in her race.

"I did not lose because I was a woman. I lost because I was challenging a popular incumbent in the primary," she said. "It’s important that we separate out political conditions from the sex of the candidate because otherwise we’re just perpetuating this myth that women can’t get elected."

"It was an incredibly challenging thing to do, but I don’t think it was because I was a female candidate," she added.

The ridiculous suggestion that Hillary Clinton might not run for president because she is about to become a grandmother would imply that being a woman does make some kind of difference, but Lawless said presidential races operate under fundamentally different dynamics than state and local races and even other national contests.

Case in point: the endless speculation more than two years before the election as to whether the former secretary of state is mounting a presidential run in 2016.

"We’ve been obsessed with reading tea leaves where there is probably very little to read," said Lawless. "And Chelsea’s pregnancy was just one more example of something we could glom onto and figure out how it was going to matter."

"The point of the paper was to suggest that not only is it not going to matter to her, but more broadly, let’s think about how families should or should not matter. We’ve now reached a point where women have achieved success at the highest levels of very male-dominated professions. Is it that surprising that [family] is not really going to affect the political decisions that they make?" said Lawless.

In a Gallup poll published Monday, 63 percent of respondents said the U.S. would be governed better if there were more women in political office, but getting women there remains a challenge. Lawless thinks the role of advocacy organizations like EMILY’s List in encouraging more women to pursue politics is important, particularly on the state and local level, but that the push could start even earlier.

"Most of these organizations are trying to encourage women who have already thought about running to enter particular races as opposed to plant the seed that running for office is something that maybe a woman should consider doing," said Lawless. "Get on to college campuses and say, ‘Look, when you’re thinking about your careers moving forward, you should be thinking that politics is an option.’"