Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a former American Prospect writing fellow.

Recent Articles

Charter Schools Insist: Our Teachers Are Public Employees! Or Private Employees! Whichever Means They Can’t Unionize!

A Louisiana case throws this question into federal court.

Poznyakov/Shutterstock
Poznyakov/Shutterstock I n May 2016, teachers at International High School (IHS)—a charter school in New Orleans— voted 26-18 in favor of forming a union. Yet more than a year later, school administrators are still refusing to bargain, insisting that the teachers do not fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. (There is no statewide collective bargaining law for public school teachers in Louisiana.) In February 2017, the NLRB voted 2-1 against IHS’s challenge, concluding that the teachers are indeed private workers under their purview rather than public employees. Yet IHS, still refusing to bargain, is now taking its case to the Fifth Circuit—the first time a federal appellate court will rule on such a challenge. The outcome of this suit could affect labor law for charter teachers not only at IHS, but throughout all the Fifth Circuit states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Last summer the NLRB issued two decisions concluding that charter school teachers are...

‘Tax Credit Scholarship’ Program May Soon Be Coming to Illinois

On Monday night, the Democratic-controlled Illinois House of Representatives voted in favor of an education funding plan that includes the establishment of a “tax credit scholarship” program: subsidies that support donors who help families pay for private school tuition. The Democratic-controlled Senate approved a similar bill Tuesday.

The money allocated to this voucher-like program is relatively small, just $75 million in credits, but opponents rightly note that most states that have established similar programs have increased the subsidies substantially over time. Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program launched in 2001 with a cap of $50 million but today their program tops out at $699 million. 

The circumstances that led to Democrats approving subsidies for private school tuition are complicated, but the short version of the story is that state legislators felt intense pressure to pass a school funding bill, one that would finally revamp Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding formula. Facing a likely veto from Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor, that Democrats wouldn’t be able to immediately override, they decided to use the tax credit scholarship measure as a bargaining chip to get the measure passed.  

Illinois lawmakers approved a separate bill to fix the state’s school funding formula in July, but Rauner vetoed parts of it earlier this month, saying too much money would be distributed to Chicago’s public school district. In mid-August, the Illinois Senate voted to override the governor’s veto, with one Republican joining the Senate’s 37 Democrats.

But on Monday, the House failed to override the governor’s veto, falling eight votes short of the necessary three-fifths majority.

Illinois school districts cannot receive state aid until the legislature approves a funding package. So with the new school year starting, House Democrats decided to accept the tax credit scholarship program, rather than prolong the negotiations.

Teacher unions were furious.

“Tonight's vote for a voucher scheme for the state of Illinois is disappointing, and the worst assault on public education since mayoral control of schools was granted in 1995,” said the Chicago Teachers Union in a statement. “We are now firmly in line with the President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos privatization agenda. Illinois legislators have voted to ‘reform’ the worst school funding system in the country with a ticking time bomb of a voucher scheme, and the Illinois Democratic Party has crossed a line which no spin or talk of ‘compromise’ can ever erase.”

The Illinois Federation of Teachers directed its criticism at the governor: 

Tonight, state legislators moved Illinois closer to doing what we have needed to do for decades—treat our poorest students and communities fairly. Unfortunately, it came at a very disappointing cost. Governor Rauner capitalized on the crisis he created when he vetoed the original bill and used it as leverage for private school tax credits that benefit the wealthy while working families continue to struggle.

We’re on a better path toward equity and adequacy, and we must move forward in our classrooms and communities. But it’s clearer than ever that this Governor does not prioritize public schools, and we must fight for one who does in 2018.

According to the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association (CPAA), Chicago Public School officials—appointed by mayor Rahm Emanuel—helped push forward the bill, pressuring CPS principals to call and lobby in support. On Monday, CPAA referenced a piece Alexander Hertel-Fernandez published in The Prospect in 2015 about the rising threat of employer political coercion. "CPAA echoes the American Prospect and calls on CPS to immediately end their efforts to coerce their employees to support voucher legislation that many fundamentally disagree with," the organization stated.

J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire venture capitalist and the early frontrunner in the Democratic race for governor, released a statement saying that “it is disappointing that Bruce Rauner used our students as pawns in his political games to get a back-door voucher program put in place.” He promised to repeal the program if elected in 2018.

Under Trump, Liberals Rediscover School Segregation

The president’s racism has opened the door for a franker discussion of school choice.

(Tom Sherlin/The Daily Times via AP)
(Tom Sherlin/The Daily Times via AP) Protesters gather on January 30, 2017, in front of Senator Lamar Alexander's office in Knoxville, Tennessee, to object to the nomination of Betsy DeVos. A t the American Federation of Teachers’ biannual TEACH conference in July, union president Randi Weingarten gave a provocative speech about school choice, privatization, and Donald Trump’s secretary of education. “Betsy DeVos is a public school denier, denying the good in our public schools and their foundational place in our democracy,” Weingarten declared. “Her record back in Michigan, and now in Washington, makes it clear that she is the most anti–public education secretary of education ever.” But it was Weingarten’s remarks about choice and segregation that ultimately drew the most fire: She highlighted politicians who had used school choice as a way to resist integration following Brown v. Board of Education ; she argued that the use of private school vouchers increases racial and economic...

Making Student Homelessness a Visible Issue

Saturday, July 22 marks the 30-year anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the federal government’s first major legislative response to homelessness. One important—and controversial—section of the law requires states to remove educational barriers experienced by homeless children and youth, out of recognition that many homeless children cannot enroll in school for a host of bureaucratic and logistical reasons.

Three decades later, there are 1.3 million homeless students in U.S. schools, an increase of 160 percent since 1987. And there are hundreds of thousands more homeless children who have already dropped out, or are still too young to be enrolled in school.

A new policy brief published by Liz Cohen of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness and Barbara Duffield, of the SchoolHouse Connection, looks at where progress has been made at addressing the intersections of homelessness and education, and where work—lots of it—remains to be done.

The authors give the McKinney-Vento Act real credit, not only for providing financial resources to school districts to help homeless students, but also for the “statistical insights mandated by the Act.” They acknowledge that many homeless students would have never enrolled in any school without the law’s protections.

They also note, however, that many students are never properly identified as homeless, so there may be large numbers of children who never have access to services they are entitled to.

In an interview with the Prospect, Cohen expressed frustration that homeless students have not been treated as a distinct subgroup of underserved, vulnerable students.

“The majority of the education reform movement has focused on low-income kids, minority kids, children with disabilities or English-language learners, but homeless children have never really been recognized as anything but low-income students,” she says. “Obviously homeless students are low-income, but there are some important differences in educational outcomes and experiences for children who are currently or formerly experiencing housing instability than for poor students who haven’t.”

Though there’s a great deal of work to do, Cohen says she’s optimistic about the future—pointing to the Every Students Succeeds Act which passed in 2015. This new federal education law requires—for the first time—that schools specifically report the graduation rates of homeless students. Prior to the law’s passage only five states reported the graduation rates for homeless students.

As Cohen and Duffield write at the conclusion of their report:

We can’t say whether we will have ended family and youth homelessness in the next thirty years. Sadly, the rights and services provided by the McKinney-Vento Act may well still be needed at that time. But the wisdom we’ve gleaned from the past thirty years could propel us to make much more progress in the decades to come. What we can and must achieve, however, is to put homeless students on the map. … Our nation and communities must provide adequate resources to boost academic achievement, as well as for mental and physical health needs. Homeless students must know that they are safe in school, and have adults who can and will advocate for them. Their hopes and dreams must guide us, with urgency, as we learn from the past and step into the future.

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