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The Next Step in the Trump-DeVos Plan to Send Taxpayer Money to Religious Schools

Mother Jones

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During his address before a joint session of Congress earlier this week, President Donald Trump paused to introduce Denisha Merriweather, a graduate student from Florida sitting with first lady Melania Trump. Merriweather “failed third grade twice” in Florida’s public schools, Trump said. “But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, great learning center, with the help of a tax credit,” he continued, referring to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program that allows students attend private schools. Because of this opportunity, Denisha became the first member of her family to graduate from high school and college.

Trump used Denisha’s story to call for his favorite education policy, school choice, asking lawmakers to “pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also been pointing to Denisha and Florida in the past two weeks as a way to promote school choice. “Florida is a good and growing example of what can happen when you have a robust array of choices,” DeVos told a conservative radio host on February 15. DeVos brought up the state’s school choice model again during her speech to the leaders of historically black colleges earlier this week.

So what is it about Florida? For starters, the state offers many different types of school choice, including charter schools, vouchers for low-income students and those with disabilities, and tax credit scholarships. Charter schools, found in 43 states and Washington, DC, represent the most common type of school choice. Vouchers are a little more complicated: They essentially operate like a state-issued coupon that parents can use to send their child to private or religious schools. The amount is typically what the state would use to send a kid to a public school. But vouchers are difficult to implement, because many state constitutions, like those in Michigan and Florida, have what are called Blaine Amendments, which prohibit spending public dollars on religious schools. And notably, only 31 percent of Americans support vouchers.

Tax credit scholarships provide a crafty mechanism to get around these obstacles. Tax credits are given to individuals and corporations that donate money to scholarship-granting institutions; if parents end up using those scholarships to send their kids to religious schools—and 79 percent of students in private schools are taught by institutions affiliated with churches—the government technically is not transferring taxpayer money directly to religious organizations.

While DeVos is best known as an advocate of vouchers, most veteran Beltway insiders told me that a federal voucher program is very unlikely. “Democrats don’t like vouchers. Republicans don’t like federal programs, and would rather leave major school reform decisions up to states and local communities,” Rick Hess, a veteran education policy expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute said. “Realistically, nobody thinks they’ve got the votes to do a federal school choice law, especially in the Senate.”

This political reality is perhaps why Trump and DeVos are singling out Florida’s tax credit programs as a way to expand private schooling options. While Trump and DeVos have not specified what shape this policy might take at the federal level, most of these changes will come from the state legislators. Republicans have full control of the executive and legislative branches in 25 states, and control the governor’s house or the state legislature in 44 states. At least 14 states have already proposed bills in this legislative session that would expand some form of vouchers or tax credit scholarships, according to a Center for American Progress analysis. (And 17 states already provide some form of tax credit scholarships, according to EdChoice.)

This perfect storm for pushing through various voucher schemes comes at a time when the results on the outcomes of these programs “are the worst in the history of the field,” according to New America researcher Kevin Carey, who analyzed the results in a recent New York Times article. Until about two years ago, most studies on vouchers produced mixed results, with some showing slight increases in test scores or graduation rates for students using them. But the most recent research has not been good, according to Carey: A 2016 study, funded by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation and conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found that students who used vouchers in a large Ohio program “have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”

Then there is the issue of state oversight and transparency. Many states, including Florida, have little to no jurisdiction over private schools and don’t make student achievement data public, save for attendance. A 2011 award-winning investigation by Gus Garcia-Roberts of the Miami New Times described the resulting system as a “cottage industry of fraud and chaos.” Schools could qualify to educate voucher and tax credit scholarship students even though they had no accreditation or curriculum. Some staffers in these schools were convicted criminals for drug dealing, kidnapping, and burglary. “In one school’s ‘business management’ class, students shook cans for coins on the streets,” Garcia-Roberts found.

Florida’s Department of Education investigated 38 schools suspected of fraud and in 25 cases, the allegations were substantiated. “It’s like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash,” Garcia-Roberts wrote. “Dole out millions to anybody calling himself as educator. Don’t regulate curriculum or even visit campuses to see where the money is going.”

But these on-the-ground realities in Florida won’t tame the enthusiasm of a voucher booster like DeVos. As I showed in my recent investigation, her philanthropic giving shows an overwhelming preference for promoting private, Christian schools, and conservative, free-market think tanks that work to shrink the public sector in every sphere, including education. These past choices suggest that the data—or the fact that there are many stories like Denisha Merriweather’s in America’s public schools—doesn’t matter.

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The Next Step in the Trump-DeVos Plan to Send Taxpayer Money to Religious Schools

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Is Your Favorite Restaurant Standing Up for Immigrants?

Mother Jones

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On this episode of the Mother Jones food politics podcast, Bite, restaurant owners dish about what it’s like to run an eatery in the age of Trump-administration immigration raids.

Back on January 25, President Donald Trump issued an executive order vowing to crack down on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The move confirmed that Trump meant to make good on the anti-immigrant zealotry he repeatedly spewed during his campaign—and sent shock waves through the US restaurant scene.

That’s because about 15.7 percent of US restaurant workers are undocumented immigrants, and another 5.9 percent are foreign-born US citizens, as this 2014 study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows. So when Trump ramps up the pressure on undocumented US residents, he’s also making life stressful for the people who cook restaurant meals, wait tables, and wash dishes.

As if they didn’t have enough on their plates to deal with. According to EPI, restaurant workers’ median wage stands at $10 per hour, tips included—and hasn’t budged, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 2000. For non-restaurant US workers, the median hourly wage is $18. That means the median restaurant worker makes 44 percent less than other workers. Benefits are also rare—just 14.4 percent of restaurant workers have employer-sponsored health insurance and 8.4 percent have pensions, vs. 48.7 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively, for other workers.

As a result of these paltry wages, more than 40 percent of restaurant workers live below twice the poverty line—the income level necessary for a family to make ends meet. That’s double the rate of non-restaurant workers. In other words, Trump is going after the most vulnerable subset of an extremely vulnerable group of workers.

On Thursday of last week, activists organized a national Day Without Immigrants, a kind of general strike that included the closing of restaurants in Atlanta, Austin, Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix, Nashville, Albuquerque, Denton, Dallas, Fort Worth, and—most prominently— Washington, DC. My colleague Nathalie Baptiste reports that busy DC spots Busboys and Poets and Bad Saint shut their doors that day, as did all of the restaurants owned by prominent chef Jose Andrés, including Jaleo and Zaytinya.

The gesture took place in a highly charged atmosphere, amid reports that US immigration authorities arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants in at least a half-dozen states, including Florida, Kansas, Virginia, and my home state, Texas. Things got really tense in my hometown of Austin, where the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) set up checkpoints in low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants.

Meanwhile, a “Sanctuary Restaurant” movement gained momentum. Launched back in January by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Sanctuary Restaurants pledge not to “allow any harassment of any individual based on immigrant/refugee status, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation to occur in their restaurant” and hang a “Sanctuary Restaurant” sign on their doors. By last week, more than 100 had signed on nationwide.

In the midst of it all, Maddie and I hit the streets to talk to a couple of participating restaurants for the new episode of Bite.

I talked to Johhny Livesay, the chef and co-founder of Black Star Co-op, a community-owned, worker-managed pub and brewery in Austin. In addition to signing on as a sanctuary restaurant, Black Star also has an innovative compensation policy: all the workers are paid a living wage, with benefits, and tips aren’t accepted. Austin has emerged as an incubator of restaurants challenging the industry’s unfair practices. L’Oca d’Oro, an Italian spot helmed by the former punk-rock musician Fiore Tedesco, also rejects the standard tipping model and has joined the sanctuary-restaurant movement.

And Maddie spoke with Penny Baldado, the owner of a lunch joint called Cafe Gabriela in Oakland, California. Penny is an immigrant herself—she’s originally from the Philippines. Give it a listen, and subscribe on iTunes if you haven’t already.

Bite is Mother Jones‘ podcast for people who think hard about their food. Listen to all our episodes here, or subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher or via RSS.

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Is Your Favorite Restaurant Standing Up for Immigrants?

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Trump Expected to Sign Executive Orders Hitting the EPA

Mother Jones

Scott Pruitt will almost certainly be the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Oklahoma attorney general’s nomination is expected to sail through Senate—possibly as soon as Friday—despite Democrats’ protests that he is unfit to lead an agency that he has repeatedly sued. The administration has already imposed a freeze on the EPA’s social media, halted its rulemaking, and reportedly mandated that all agency research be reviewed by a political appointee before being released to the public. But next week, once Pruitt is sworn in, the real frenzy will begin.

According to Reuters, President Donald Trump plans to sign between two and five environmental executive orders aimed at the EPA and possibly the State Department. The White House is reportedly planning to hold an event at the EPA headquarters, similar the administration’s roll-out of its widely condemn travel ban after Defense Secretary James Mattis took office. While we don’t know what, exactly, next week’s orders will say, Trump is expected to restrict the agency’s regulatory oversight. Based on one administration official’s bluster, the actions could “suck the air” out of the room.

Trump may have hinted at the forthcoming orders in his unwieldy press conference on Thursday. “Some very big things are going to be announced next week,” he said. (He didn’t make clear whether or not he was referring to the EPA.)

Former President Barack Obama’s array of climate regulations, including the Clean Power Plan limiting power plant emissions, are certainly high on conservative activists’ hit list. So too is the landmark Paris climate deal, in which Obama agreed to dramatically cut domestic carbon emissions and provide aide to other countries for clean energy projects and climate adaptation. The EPA’s rule that defines its jurisdiction over wetlands and streams is also a prime target. As attorney general, Pruitt launched lawsuits against a number of these regulations.

“What I would like to see are executive orders on implementing all of President Trump’s main campaign promises on environment and energy, including withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty,” said Myron Ebell, who headed Trump’s EPA transition and recently returned to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in an email to Mother Jones.

H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow the Heartland Institute, which rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, says Trump could start by revisiting the Obama administration’s efforts to calculate a “social cost of carbon“—and by forbidding its use to determine costs and benefits of government regulations. He also wants to see broader restrictions on how the EPA calculates costs and benefits. In particular, Burnett hopes Trump will prohibit the agency from the considering public health co-benefits of regulations—for example, attempts by the EPA to argue that limits on CO2 emissions from power plants also reduce emissions of other dangerous pollutants.

Or Trump could take a cue from Republican Attorneys General Patrick Morrisey (W.V.) and Ken Paxton (Texas), who recommended in December that Trump issue a memorandum directing the EPA to “take no further action to enforce or implement” the Clean Power Plan. (The Supreme Court halted implementation of the rule a year ago while both sides fight it out in federal court).

The holy grail for conservatives would be reversing the agency’s so-called “endangerment finding,” which states that greenhouse gas emissions harm public health and must therefore be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The endangerment finding is the legal underpinning for the bulk of Obama’s climate policies, including the restrictions on vehicle and power plant emissions. Undoing the finding wouldn’t be an easy feat and can’t be accomplished by executive order alone. The endangerment finding isn’t an Obama invention; in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gasses if it found they harmed public health. Pruitt said during his confirmation hearing that the administration wouldn’t revisit the finding, but he also launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against it in 2010. Neither Ebell nor Burnett expects to see Trump to tackle the endangerment finding just yet.

Environmentalists are already planning their response. Litigation is certainly an option, but it would of course depend on the details of Trump’s executive actions. Several groups, including EarthJustice and Natural Resources Defense Council, have already sued to block Trump’s earlier executive order requiring that every new regulation be offset by scrapping two existing regulations. Their case: The administration can’t arbitrarily ditch regulations just because the president wants fewer of them on the books.

They could be making a similar case soon enough. “A new president has to deal with the record and evidence and findings,” EarthJustice’s lead attorney, Patti Goldman, said. “If you take climate and the endangerment finding, that is a scientific finding that is upheld by the court. That finding has legal impacts. If there’s a directive along those lines, there will have to be a process.”

Of course, anti-EPA Republicans disagree about what is constitutional, which is one reason the agency is in for a tumultuous ride over the next four years. For many conservatives, no EPA at all—or at least one that has no regulatory powers—is the best option. “I read the constitution of the United States, and the word environmental protection does not appear there,” said Heartland’s Burnett. “I don’t see where it’s sanctioned. I think it should go away.” A freshman House Republican recently introduced a bill to do just that, but there’s no sign that it’s going to pass anytime soon.

And while Burnett acknowledges that the EPA probably won’t be vanishing in the near future, he’s been happy with the direction Trump has taken so far. He’s pleased with the president’s moves to restart the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, and he’s hopeful that the administration will move toward an EPA with “smaller budgets and a smaller mission, justified by the fact that you’ll have fewer regulations.”

Depending on what Trump does next week, that could be just the beginning.

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Trump Expected to Sign Executive Orders Hitting the EPA

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This Superbug Is Resistant to All Antibiotics—and Has Killed Its First American Victim

Mother Jones

For a while now, the specter of “pan-resistant” pathogens—superbugs so super that they can withstand all available antibiotics—have haunted US and global public health authorities. This week, we got news of one showing up in the United States.

An elderly Nevada woman died in September after being infected by a strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae that was “resistant to all available antimicrobial drugs,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in a Friday note.

For Americans, the good news is that she probably didn’t contract her fatal infection here. She had been on an “extended trip” to India, CDC reports, where she had been hospitalized several times for a broken femur (thigh bone). Since she had a history of foreign hospitalizations, the US hospital in Nevada where she died sent a sample of Enterobacteriaceae for extensive CDC testing, as the CDC recommends in such cases. The result: The bug showed resistance to no fewer than 26 antibiotics. The fact that other patients admitted to the Nevada hospital tested negative for the same strain suggests the patient picked it up in India.

But that should be cold comfort. Bacteria don’t respect borders—they travel rapidly, not just in people and products, but also in wild birds. As Sarah Zhang recently put it in The Atlantic:

Over and over, scientists have identified genes conferring resistance to a class of antibiotics, only to find the gene had circled the globe. Another recent example is ndm-1, a gene found in 2009 that confers resistance to class of antibiotics called carbapenems. “It’s very rare to catch something at the very beginning,” says Alexander Kallen, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking for resistance is a constant game of catch-up. You don’t notice anything until there is something to notice; by the time there is something to notice, something bad has already happened.

Too often, though, media reports about antibiotic resistance neglect to mention a key driver: modern meat production. The unraveling of antibiotics as a tool to fight infections is intimately related to the way we have raised animals for decades, dosing them with antibiotics to make animals gain weight faster and avoid infections despite in tight, unsanitary conditions. Overuse in human medicine also drives the problem, but nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States flow into livestock farms.

The CDC, the World Health Organization, the UK government, and other public health authorities warn that overuse of drugs in meat farming are a key generator of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, which cause 90,000 US deaths annually, while also racking up $55 billion in costs and causing 8 million additional days that people spend in the hospital, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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This Superbug Is Resistant to All Antibiotics—and Has Killed Its First American Victim

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Trump Is Desperately Seeking A Latino For His Cabinet

Mother Jones

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Donald Trump triumphed in politics after a long stint as a reality TV star. And now, as he scrambles to fill his final cabinet slots, the pesident-elect is taking a close look at a Republican who tried his best to move in the opposite direction.

Meet Abel Maldonado, who runs a large farm and a small vineyard on California’s Central Coast and is suddenly in the running for agriculture secretary. Maldonado, the son of Mexican immigrants, has seen his star rise amid speculation that Trump (who constantly lashed out at Mexican and other immigrants during his campaign) “is scrambling to appoint a Hispanic official to serve in his Cabinet,” Politico reports. If Trump fails to include a Latino in his cabinet, he’ll be the first president since Jimmy Carter to do so. There are only four slots left, and Politico adds that “Trump has narrowed his focus to agriculture secretary as the best possibility” for choosing a Latino.

Maldonado is is the latest in a parade of names Team Trump has floated for USDA, a chaotic process that I last updated here. In California politics, Maldonado is seen as a fallen prodigy. His political career peaked in 2009, when then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed the then-state senator as lieutenant governor. Less then a year later, Maldonado’s campaign to retain that office failed miserably. Since then, he has made unsuccessful bids for a seat in the US House and governor.

In 2016, Maldonado reportedly pitched himself as a potential reality TV star. Here’s The Sacramento Bee:

A video compilation that has rocketed around the Internet recently opens with an apparent working title: Meet the Maldonados. In it, the former state legislator and unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate can be seen drinking wine with his daughter, asking his son about having a condom and laughing after his wife informs their daughter that “we watched porn when you were conceived.

At one point, a horse starts relieving itself in Maldonado’s house. “Yeah, Sacramento’s better than this,” a flustered Maldonado mutters as he cleans up.

The Bee reports that the show wasn’t picked up, and I failed to find the video compilation that “rocketed around the Internet,” despite an exhaustive search.

Maldonado met with the president-elect on Wednesday at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. On the surface, Abel would bring a compelling back story. The son of immigrant farm workers from Mexico, he built his family’s plot from “a half acre of strawberries into a farm that now works over 6,000 acres and employs over 250 people and ships produce all over the world,” according to one bio. With his daughter, he runs a winery called Runway Vineyards.

But his ag businesses have had their own troubles. Agro-Jal, Maldanado’s produce farm, “has accumulated dozens of violations from Cal/OSHA since 1990, hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax liens, and multiple citations for exposing workers to toxic pesticides and skirting clean water regulations, government records show,” The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010. Maldonado he was a victim of overzealous regulators, the Times added.

In 2015, the operation was hit with a class-action suit from former workers alleging unpaid minimum and overtime wages, as well as denial of sufficient breaks and meal periods. The suit is ongoing and now in the discovery phase, Allen Hutkin, the San Luis Obispo lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of the workers, told me.

And as Ed Kilgore notes at New York Magazine, Maldonado is generally seen as a moderate Republican—which would put him out of step with the Senate Republicans who will vet the USDA pick.

Meanwhile, Elsa Murano, a former high USDA official and now director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M, also is under consideration for USDA. Born in Cuba to parents who soon migrated to the United States, she too would qualify as Trump’s only cabinet pick with Hispanic heritage.

As I reported last week, Murano is also a classic example of the revolving door between industry and regulatory agencies. In 2004, Murano stepped down from her post as chief of the USDA division that oversees food safety at the nation’s slaughterhouses. Two years later, she joined the board of directors of pork giant Hormel, a company that runs some of the nation’s largest slaughterhouses. She has held that post ever since, with annual compensation of $237,980 and stock holdings worth $2,484,262 as of 2015.

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Trump Is Desperately Seeking A Latino For His Cabinet

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