TIME Education

Colbert v. Stewart: The Celebrity Death Match Over School Reform

From left to right, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Comedy Central

Comedy Central's fake newscasters have an outsized influence on public opinion and seemingly different takes on hotly-debated topics like teacher tenure laws and the Common Core standards

When Stephen Colbert invited newcaster-turned-education-reformer Campbell Brown on his show last night, he unwittingly unleashed a firestorm of controversy and, some say, distanced him from his liberal brother-in-fake-news, and fellow Viacom employee, Jon Stewart.

Several hundred of Colbert’s leftwing fans protested outside of his Manhattan studio before the taping, and thousands more took to the blogosphere, decrying Brown as an elitist union-buster and accusing Colbert of being “a sell out like the rest of them.”

“Maybe Colbert ought to watch the Jon Stewart show to learn about education issues!” wrote one commenter. “How idiotic of Colbert – IDIOTIC.”

In an era where liberals find themselves at each other’s throats over nearly every issue related to school reform—from charter schools to teacher tenure laws to the roll-out of the Common Core reading and math standards adopted by most states—advocates on both sides of the debate have been paying close attention to people like Colbert and Stewart, who have an outsized influence on liberal public opinion.

The otherwise dry policy debate has also drawn an unusual amount of star power. In May, the comedian Louis CK panned Common Core while the actress Eva Longoria and singer John Legend have come out in its defense.

Some have suggested that Colbert, who has been an outspoken proponent of other controversial school reform initiatives, like the charter school movement, seemed to be signaling his sympathies by inviting Brown as his guest. Brown has been at the center of a recent storm of litigation designed to overturn states’ teacher tenure laws, job protections that are held dear by teachers unions. Brown argues that such laws make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers—a crucial step to making schools better.

While growing armies of liberal reformers, including the Obama administration, have backed Brown, her position remains wildly unpopular among traditional liberals who see such lawsuits as an attack on both teachers and their unions.

On these issues, Comedy Central’s other epicenter of fake-news, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” has generally stuck closer to the liberal party line. Stewart, who hails from union-friendly New Jersey and whose mother was a public school teacher, has hosted Diane Ravitch, one of the teachers unions’ most outspoken defenders and a staunch critic of charter schools, three times, most recently in October.

He has also earned points among lefties for hosting controversial school reform figures, like former chancellor of Washington DC public schools Michelle Rhee, and then grilling them with tough questions. Last year, Stewart did not veil his distaste for Rhee’s strict program of teacher evaluation. “Are we hanging [teachers] out to dry, coming in every three years, saying here’s the new reform, you are going to teach to that… increase your scores or you are fired?” he asked her on air.

At first glance, the disparities between Colbert and Stewart’s guests seem to be a microcosm of the larger schism among Democrats on school reform.

On one side, progressive reformers like Brown and Rhee have been willing to attack teachers’ unions, back the charter school movement, support the rollout of Common Core, and call for a total overhaul of the status quo. Democratic leaders, like Corey Booker and Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have celebrated these moves as “brave” and “bold” steps necessary for real reform.

On the other side, Ravitch, teachers unions, and a growing chorus of liberal parents have resisted what they see as an overly ambitious, slash-and-burn reform movement that threatens to throw out the baby with the bath water. Ravitch has tirelessly backed the teachers unions, condemned charter schools, panned Common Core and argued that panicked statistics about the poor state of public education in America are an attempt at fear-mongering. “The test scores today are the highest they’ve ever been in history, the graduation rates are the highest ever in history, the drop out rates the lowest in history,” she told Stewart last fall.

More recently, Ravitch has lashed out against Brown, calling her anti-teacher tenure lawsuits harmful and out of touch.

So on which side does this leave Colbert and Stewart—two, albeit fake news anchormen who wield a considerable amount of influence over public opinion? The short answer is that it’s unclear.

After Colbert’s interview with Brown last night, both Brown’s supporters and commenters on Ravitch’s website claimed victory. Brown tweeted that she had had a delightful time, while Ravitch’s blog bubbled with gleeful notes describing how Colbert had dragged Brown through a series of tough questions.

“Now I’m no fan of unions, but why do you have your guns out for [teachers]? Is it the same reason I [do]—so they can quit their lavish lifestyles with their 1993 Honda Civics driving around town?” Colbert asked Brown right out of the gate, channeling the hardcore conservative caricature that he assumes during his show.

But while that question, and several others, might seem combative, Brown fans agreed that the interview itself was generous—if only because Colbert gave Brown plenty of time to explain her position: “The driving focus when we decide what our policy should be, what our laws should be…[is,] ‘Is this good for a child?’” Brown said, and the crowd erupted in applause.

“They’re going to clap because you’re playing the ‘Good for Child’ card,” Colbert said, grinning, before following up an ultra-softball question: “But isn’t this about equal education?”

While Colbert did corner Brown into admitting that she will not reveal the names of those who have donated to her non-profit, Partnership for Educational Justice—a major “win” claimed by Ravitch’s side—he did suggest that her appearance on the show would be a helpful fundraising tool. “You’ll get the Colbert bump,” he said.

When it comes to other controversial school reform issues, like Common Core, Colbert has been equally hard to pin down. In one segment, Colbert ruthlessly mocked some hard questions from a math exam designed to test school kids’ understanding of Common Core principles. In another segment, he made fun of those who oppose Common Core because it does not require kids to learn cursive.

Both Comedy Central stars will no doubt have more segments on school reform this fall, as Brown’s tenure lawsuits gain steam and Common Core rolls out in most schools. When they do, liberal advocates on both sides of the line will be reading closely between the lines.

TIME Education

Conservative Christians Split on Common Core

Conservative Political Action Conference
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md. on March 7, 2014. Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call

A discussion hosted on Wednesday by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian think tank, started as a searing critique of the Common Core, a set of reading and math standards for public school students that were originally adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, and ended with a not-so-subtle threat: any elected official who supports them will be punished.

“I submit to you that any politician—left or right, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat or libertarian—any politician who is not fighting [Common Core] is not fit for office,” said Emmett McGroarty, an executive director at the American Principles Project, a conservative advocacy organization. “This issue will be the most important litmus test” for voters in both the midterm elections and in the 2016 presidential race, he said—”and it’s not going to be pretty for a lot of Republican governors.”

The crowd chuckled in agreement.

In an era in which politicians are especially vulnerable to right-wing referendums and grassroots populism (see, “Cantor, Eric”), McGroarty’s message seems at first to pack some serious punch, except for one thing: conservative Christians—and conservatives in general—are hardly a unified voting bloc when it comes to the controversial issue of the Common Core.

Earlier this year, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, one of the biggest evangelical groups in the country, representing roughly 16 million voters and 40,000 churches, announced its support for Common Core on the grounds of “Biblical justice and equality.” Another wildly popular Christian politician, Mike Huckabee—otherwise a darling of the Family Research Council—has used his radio show to urge Republicans to back the standards, despite opposite from powerful groups like the American Association of Christian Schools.

“Parents and people involved in their local schools should let it be known that core standards are valuable, and they’re not something to be afraid of—they are something to embrace,” he said.

While Huckabee has drawn fire from right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin, he has earned support from others in the Christian right, including some Catholic educators and evangelical pastors. Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University, a conservative Christian institution, has been an outspoken proponent of Common Core, as has Nicole Baker Fulgham, the author of “Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can – and Should – Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids.”

The bickering between conservative Christians on the Common Core underscores a larger civil war within both the Republican and Democratic parties that has, in past few months, catalyzed an explosion of unlikely alliances on both the right and left over this issue. Last month, after the American Federation of Teachers, one of the biggest teachers’ unions in the country, moved to distance itself from the Common Core, it found itself cheered by a handful of some of the most fiercely anti-union Tea Party groups in Washington. Freedom Works, the Heritage Foundation, as well as many potential Republican presidential nominees, including senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry and former Senator Rick Santorum, have all panned the standards.

Meanwhile, many traditional liberals—from labor activists to comedians like Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart—have come down against the standards, while organizations that have traditionally been in the GOP’s corner, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have fervently supported them. Other potential GOP presidential hopefuls, like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, have also stood behind the initiative, despite increasing opposition from their base.

One reason for the schizophrenic nature of the debate is that while Common Core has become President Barack Obama’s signature educational policy in the last few years, it is born of a fundamentally conservative idea. For years, Republicans have demanded the implementation of the rigorous standards called for in President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, and complained that, without standards that allow for comparisons between states, a second grader in Missouri will not have the same skill sets as second graders in Kansas or Maine.

The Common Core was originally conceived and written by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with funding from several private philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative is a set of voluntary educational benchmarks designed to standardize notions of “achievement” and “college readiness” between states; it is not a national curriculum. As conservatives have long demanded, the program leaves decisions about teaching methodology, textbooks, technology, and curriculum to states and local school boards.

After the Obama administration embraced the Common Core in 2009 and tied adoption of the standards to the disbursal of federal funds through the Race to the Top program, conservatives denounced the program as a federal government incursion into states rights. Tea Party groups have also objected to the fact that corporate philanthropies have actively supported the standards. They argue that the initiative amounts to, in the words of at least one presenter at the Family Research Council on Wednesday, “a corporate takeover of American schools.”

Meanwhile, liberal activists and teachers unions generally object to the Common Core on the grounds that new standardized tests, designed to measure students’ grasp of Common Core concepts, will be linked to teachers’ performance evaluations and salaries, as well as to whether students are allowed to advance to the next grade level. They argue that teachers and students who do not perform well on the new tests will be unfairly penalized.

This opposition, from both the right and left, has led to several states, including Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and North Carolina, to pull support for the Common Core. Two years ago, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said the program “will raise expectations for every child”; this year, he compared it to centralized planning in the Soviet Union and moved to repeal the program. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has also called for repeal.

For most of the states that have adopted the Common Core, this school year will mark the first time students and teachers will use their states’ new curriculum. The battle among conservative Christians, as well as conservative, liberals, and parents of every stripe promises to heat up next month.

TIME

Herbalife Hires Biden’s Former Chief of Staff

Herbalife Ltd. signage is displayed outside of Herbalife Plaza in Torrance, Calif. on Feb. 3, 2014.
Herbalife Ltd. signage is displayed outside of Herbalife Plaza in Torrance, Calif. on Feb. 3, 2014. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Alan Hoffman will oversee the company's vast lobbying effort in Washington, DC. as it fights allegations that its business model is a predatory pyramid scheme

In yet another chapter in what has become a real-life, Wall Street-D.C. soap opera, the nutritional supplements company Herbalife announced today that it has hired Vice President Joe Biden’s former chief of staff, Alan Hoffman.

Hoffman, who left Biden’s side in 2012 to join Pepsi Co., will start in August as Herbalife’s new executive vice president in charge of everything from “public policy” to “government affairs”—a title that translates, in layman’s terms, to the person who will oversee the company’s vast lobbying effort in Washington, DC.

It’s a big job. Herbalife is reportedly under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, the FBI, and at least two state attorney generals over allegations that the company’s business model is a predatory pyramid scheme.

Herbalife’s arch nemesis, the billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, gave a three-hour presentation on Tuesday this week outlining his case against the company, which he describes as a “criminal operation” that fleeces poor people by promising, but not delivering, lucrative rewards for selling Herbalife’s nutritional supplements.

But Herbalife’s all-star team of backers, which includes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the activist investor Carl Icahn, and soccer celeb David Beckham, have dismissed Ackman’s allegations out of hand as “completely false and fabricated.”

Ackman has led a lonely crusade against the company for the last 18 months, spending $50 million of his investors’ money hiring a battalion of investigators to prove that the company is misleading distributors, misrepresenting sales figures and selling its products at inflated prices. Ackman became tearful Tuesday describing the company’s practices, which he compared to those used by the Mafia, the Nazis, and Enron.

Ackman’s hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital Management LP, has also bet against Herbalife in the market and stands to gain $1 billion if the company’s stock collapses.

Herbalife’s stock has soared and plummeted, roller coaster-like, since December 2012, when Ackman first vowed to take the company down. Since January 2013, Herbalife has thrown itself into the battle, dumping roughly $2 million on official lobbying efforts in Washington, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That kind of spending marks a major increase for the company, which shelled out about the same amount on lobbying over the course of a decade between 1998 and 2008.

This week, the company suggested that it may sue Ackman for defamation — something public companies seldom do, in part because the legal barriers are very high and in part because such an action could give Ackman the power to demand access to some of Herbalife’s non-public records. (Ackman responded Tuesday to a question about the possible lawsuit: “Bring it on.”)

Hoffman, who has worked for all three branches of government, has close ties with officials within the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, Congress, and the Obama administration. “I look forward to ensuring that the public more clearly understands the critical role the company plays in advancing good nutrition,” Hoffman said in a statement today. “I also look forward to promoting the economic opportunities that this global nutrition company provides for hard-working people in communities everywhere.”

During Ackman’s presentation this week, which he promised would be a “death blow” for the company, Herbalife’s stock actually rose, ending the trading day 25% higher than where it had started. Ackman alleged that the company had bought its own stock to make its price rise.

Herbalife’s retail strategy depends on hiring salespeople who do not draw an independent income, but instead share in revenues generated by the salespeople they recruit, and those of their recruits’ recruits. Herbalife does not dispute that model.

But Ackman alleges that many of Herbalife’s “customers” are purchasing the company’s products in an effort to qualify to open a branded “nutrition club,” which the company bills as a lucrative business opportunity. Ackman says his investigators’ analysis of a sample of Herbalife’s “nutrition clubs” lost an average of at least $12,000 a year, and that fewer than 2% of its salespeople made more than $5,000 last year. Herbalife says those numbers misrepresent its model, where many customers sign up as “salespeople” to get discounts on the products for themselves, their friends and family.

“I’m an extremely, extremely persistent person. Extremely,” Ackman said Tuesday. “And when I believe I am right, and it is important, I will go to the end of the earth.” Whether he’s right or wrong, he’s up against a formidable team in Washington, DC.

TIME technology

Comcast, AT&T Say They’re Not Big Enough Yet

Comcast
The Comcast Corp. logo is seen as Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., right, speaks during a news conference at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Cable Show in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

At a Senate hearing ahead of major merger melees

Two of the biggest players in the telecom industry faced off against a public interest group, a trade group and a satellite company at a Senate hearing Wednesday in a debate that will help set the stage for upcoming battles over the future of broadband, television and streaming video.

The hearing comes just as federal regulators are staffing up to review two mammoth mergers: One between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and another between AT&T and DirecTV. To some degree, the hearing was only ceremonial: Congress won’t have any direct say over whether federal regulators approve or deny the mergers. But political winds in Washington can affect regulators’ moods, and the back-and-forth gave members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation a chance to publicly speak their minds on the mergers.

While the discussion at the hearing was unflaggingly respectful, it touched, just below the surface, on what has become a fiercely ideological war with regard to the future of TV, with each side presenting a vision incompatible with the other’s.

Comcast and AT&T argued that massive consolidation in the telecom industry is good for consumers, good for innovation, and good for the free market. They warned that if the government does not allow the mergers to go through, incumbent telecom companies would no longer be able to invest in basic Internet infrastructure, leaving consumers to pay more for fewer Internet and TV options.

Representatives from advocacy group Public Knowledge, a TV writer’s guild, and satellite TV company Dish made the opposite case. They said that recent consolidation in the telecom industry has been terrible for consumers, driven up prices and driven down the quality of customer service. They also said the lack of competition has squashed innovation and investment in broadband infrastructure.

At the center of the discussion was Americans’ shifting TV-viewing habits. When Americans want to watch TV, they’re increasingly bypassing traditional set-top boxes, instead opting for their smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Online video consumption grew by 71% in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, according to Nielsen.

That trend has been the driving force behind skyrocketing broadband subscriptions—a major cash cow for cable companies and for telecom companies that offer services faster than DSL. AT&T’s revenue from its U-Verse high-speed broadband business was up 29% from last year according to a recent quarterly report, for example. Comcast, which already has more than 21 million broadband subscribers, says the broadband business is one of its fastest-growing offerings.

That so many Americans are streaming more video online has also made online TV and video content companies, like Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo, fundamentally dependent on telecom companies’ pipes to reach customers. Public Knowledge’s Gene Kimmelman argued that no online video streaming company can exist without going through broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast, whose services are necessary to deliver streaming content to consumers. That sets up a potential problem, as Comcast could be incentivized not to carry Netflix or YouTube content as quickly as its own video offerings (Comcast owns NBCUniversal, a major content production company).

“Everyone who wants to make the online video system works needs to make a deal with Comcast,” he said.

Also addressed during the hearing was many Americans’ frustration at having to pay large bills for pay-TV—bills that have risen faster than inflation—to receive hundreds of channels. The non-profit consumers rights group, Consumers Union, has said that at least two-thirds of pay-TV customers [PDF] would prefer to pay less for a handful of programs that they actually watch. The disconnect between these two methods—known as “bundling” versus “a al carte”—is at the heart of the future of online video.

“The younger generation doesn’t want to spend $120 for 500 channels,” said Jeffrey Blum, a senior vice president of Dish, the second-largest satellite company in the country after DirecTV. But fixing the problem, he said, requires going up against incumbent telecom companies, like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, which rely on bundling to underwrite their pay TV services, and would lose out if most Americans simply cut their pay-TV bill and began streaming shows online. Popular networks like ESPN would also lose out; in the current system, the telecom companies pay them large fees to redistribute their content.

Still, Blum said, there is already “too much power in the hands of too few” in the broadband space. A combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable “will have the incentive and ability to stifle competition,” he said.

Both Cohen and AT&T’s senior executive VP John Stankey dismissed concerns about anticompetitive behavior. In previous testimony before Congress, Comcast’s executive VP David Cohen has said that the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable will not affect competition since the companies do not currently compete in any geographic region, and that Comcast has “only to gain” from more people streaming video online. The more demand there is for online video, “the more demand there is for our broadband service,” he said at a previous hearing.

In February, Comcast made a bid to buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion; in May, AT&T’s bid for DirecTV was worth $48.5 billion. Neither deal has yet to pass regulatory muster.

Both Cohen and Stankey also reiterated their companies’ commitment to the Federal Communication Commission’s now-defunct rules on “net neutrality,” the notion that broadband providers treat all content that passes over their pipes equally. While both expressed their opposition to some public interest groups’ hopes that the telecom industry would be recategorized as a “Title II” industry, giving the FCC much more regulatory control over broadband, they said they supported the FCC’s newly proposed net neutrality rules.

Those rules have come under fire because they allow broadband companies to redirect some content to a “fast lane,” while relegating most content to a slower, regular lane. Cohen said that while he “didn’t understand” what “fast lanes and slow lanes” even were, he said it was a non-issue. “We don’t have any,” he said. “We don’t have any plans to develop any.”

TIME technology

Here Are the Other Companies Comcast Is Gobbling Up

Comcast Headquarters
The Comcast Center, which is Comcast's Corporate headquarters, is seen in Philadelphia, Penn. William Thomas Cain—Getty Images

Recent tech acquisitions put the cable giant in a position to dominate the digital video market and expand its broadband reach

While federal regulators, Congress, and most of K Street have been focused on Comcast’s massive, $45-billion proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, Comcast has been busy snapping up smaller fare.

In the last four months, Comcast has acquired two new tech companies, PowerCloud Systems and FreeWheel Media, both of which will help the cable giant touch nearly every aspect of how we use broadband Internet in our homes and offices, and especially how we watch video online.

But while Comcast has celebrated its newest acquisitions, its competitors, as well as a handful of consumer interest groups, are bracing themselves for the worst. Comcast, which owns NBC-Universal and is already the biggest pay-TV and broadband provider in the country, will likely use these new technologies to increase its dominance in both the broadband and online video markets.

PowerCloud, which Comcast acquired on Monday, has designed new technology to help people to monitor and control how broadband Internet is consumed in their homes and offices. The company’s consumer-facing app, SkyDog, keeps track of which computers or devices are accessing the Internet, what sites they’re visiting, when, and what their bandwidth use is at different times of day.

FreeWheel, which Comcast acquired in April, is an online advertising company dedicated to placing ads in most of the biggest media conglomerates’ videos and TV shows streamed online.

Both PowerCloud and FreeWheel, while they do very different things, put Comcast in a position to take advantage of two major—and majorly lucrative—trends in the industry. The first is what’s known as the “Internet of Things.” As Internet-connected appliances—like thermostats, lighting systems, refrigerators and coffee makers—begin to proliferate in our homes, PowerCloud’s technology could be used to prioritize certain devices at certain times of day. Meanwhile, FreeWheel could, say, place coffee ads on a coffee maker just when it senses that you’re running low on beans.

The second—and even more immediate—trend is that Americans are in the process of shifting, en masse, from watching shows on their TV sets to watching them a variety of digital devices, like smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Online video consumption grew by 71% in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, according to Nielsen. FreeWheel, which is among the biggest mobile-advertising firms in the country, is poised to do well in that market, which has grown by 83% since last year, according to eMarketer, a market research firm.

Rival media and cable companies, meanwhile, are worried that Comcast’s acquisitions give an enormously powerful company even more power. For example, FreeWheel’s client base includes most of Comcast’s biggest competitors in the broadcast and pay-TV space, including Viacom, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner, and Walt Disney. Comcast’s rivals worry that it could use FreeWheel to access a host of valuable metrics about its competition, including what demographics are viewing which of their shows, when people are watching, and how much they are being paid for ad placement.

Comcast representatives have brushed aside such concerns. “FreeWheel operates as an independent business and continues to support the needs of its broad customer base of programmers and distributors,” said Rob Holmes, a vice president of advanced advertising at Comcast. “Our goal is to accelerate their business—in fact, they’ve already added new customers this year—so it’s in our best interest to respect client data and ensure FreeWheel maintains its autonomy.”

Media executives, for their part, have mostly remained pretty quiet, griping to reporters only anonymously. Some say they are worried about publicly complaining about Comcast’s recent acquisition because survival in the pay TV space requires working closely with Comcast. After all, Viacom, 21st Century Fox, and all the rest rely on Comcast, which is by far the biggest distribution network in the country, to pay billions in retransmission fees and to deliver networks’ TV content to tens of millions of consumers’ homes.

As for Comcast’s more recent acquisition of PowerCloud, some public interest advocates have expressed concerns about how the company will use that new technology. Comcast has said it’s too early to tell exactly how it will be implemented. A company representative said one plan is to use the technology to give consumers better parental controls, so that parents keep their child from accessing certain digital content. But critics say Comcast could use that technology, as well as strategic pricing, to control how consumers access different content on different devices. The company could, for example, make it easy, convenient and cheap for subscribers to watch certain, Comcast-approved content on all their devices, while making it inconvenient—or simply more expensive—to watch non-Comcast-approved content.

As part of its merger with NBC-Universal in 2011, Comcast promised to abide by now-defunct rules governing “net neutrality”—the notion that a broadband provider must treat all content equally—through 2018. But in today’s policy and technological climate, it’s unclear what that means. In April, the Federal Communications Commission proposed new rules on net neutrality specifying that broadband Internet providers, like Comcast, would be allowed to accept payments to “prioritize” some websites’ content over others, and to stream certain videos faster than others.

TIME Education

Teachers Union Pulls Full-Throated Support for Common Core

Students Taking Tests Common Core
Getty Images

Move by American Federation of Teachers is blow to the White House

After years of battling conservative groups opposed to Common Core, supporters of the testing standards discovered Friday morning that one of their most avid allies, the American Federation of Teachers, is bailing on them too. Et tu, Brutus?

At its annual convention Friday in Los Angeles, AFT president Randi Weingarten is expected to announce that the union will underwrite $20,000 to $30,000 grants for teachers’ projects designed to rewrite and improve the Common Core standards, according to a press release.

While AFT stops short of outright opposing the Common Core, Weingarten has said that that option is not off the table. An hour-long open debate on Common Core is planned for the last day of the convention on Sunday, which could lead to a vote condemning the Common Core in its entirety. Some of AFT’s local chapters, including Chicago, have called for the union to end its support for Common Core entirely.

The AFT’s decision to distance itself from its once-avid support for the Common Core marks a major—and, some say, even potentially lethal—blow to the standards, which the White House has emphasized as its key priority in education.

The real danger is not that the Common Core will be thrown out entirely, but that state policy directors in charge of implementing the standards will be cowed by what they see as a groundswell of anger from teachers, said Michael Brickman, the national policy director at Fordham Institute, which supports the standards. If states choose not to tie the Common Core to teacher and students evaluations, all is lost, he said.

“It’s one thing to have really great standards on paper, but if they’re not tied to anything meaningful in terms of accountability, not a lot is going to improve,” he said.

Backers of Common Core at both the state and federal level have pointed at union support for the standards as validation for the policy. It’s too early to tell whether state policy makers will see the AFT’s withdrawal of support as a reflection of most teachers’ opinions, or of public opinion writ large.

“We do know that it’s a significant shift,” said Amy Hyslop, a policy analyst at New America Foundation who works on Common Core. “The AFT has objected to using the tests for evaluations, but this is first time they’ve been critical of the standards themselves.”

The AFT’s move comes less than two months after the National Education Association, the nation’s biggest teachers union, voted to demand the resignation of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. AFT has not yet considered joining NEA’s call for Duncan’s ouster, but say it’s not out of the cards.

The teachers unions, which strongly supported Obama’s election and once avidly backed the Common Core standards, have been increasingly disillusioned with the administration for years.

Their discontent is fueled in part by what many see as the herky-jerky implementation of Common Core so far. In some schools, teachers were asked to administer Common Core exams before they’d been given textbooks indicating what would be tested.

The unions have also criticized the standards for being too hard, rewarding a small number of “profiteering” companies that make the tests and books, and bringing punitive repercussions for both teachers and students. In many states, teachers’ performance evaluations and whether students are allowed to advance to the next grade level are tied to Common Core test scores.

In some ways, AFT’s announcement seems a long time coming. In April last year, AFT called for a moratorium on using Common Core test scores to judge teachers’ performances and determine whether students should be held back a grade level. In January, the New York state teachers union withdrew its support for the standards, citing major problems with implementation.

Weingarten, who has been a long-time public supporter the Common Core, has made a point in recent months of actively publicizing her members’ discontent over the program.

Brickman, and other education analysts, say the unions’ waning support is probably tied to the fact that they have faced several significant political blows this year. Last month, a California court ruled against tenure and other job protections. Two former Obama spokesmen have also launched a public relations campaign linking tenure with a failure of school reform. Under fire from both conservatives and Democrats, unions may be taking a defensive stance. “I think what they’re doing here is circling the wagons, going back to their bread and butter,” said Brickman.

Other analysts think AFT’s withdrawal of support is a calculated move designed to telegraph to the Obama administration that AFT’s backing is contingent on whether the administration pays attention to its other demands. For example, AFT has long called for the repeal of another federal law, No Child Left Behind, passed by the Bush administration, which mandates annual, multiple-choice tests for most elementary and middle school students.

The Common Core standards were designed in part as a response to unions’ discontent over what they called the “toxic testing” required by No Child Left Behind. The Common Core standards do not require rote, fill-in-the-bubble tests, as NCLB does, but instead involves more rigorous, hands-on problem solving, which is what the unions had demanded originally.

The Common Core standards describe what every student, kindergarten through high school, is expected to know. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia originally adopted the standards, but several conservative states have since dropped them. The Common Core will be implemented for the first time next school year, with teacher evaluations and student progress linked to the tests in 2015-16–which leaves plenty of time for in-fighting until then.

TIME

Telecom-Funded Congressional Group: Don’t Regulate Telecom Industry!

At an event funded by the telecom industry, organizations funded by the telecom industry argue against – wait for it! – regulating the telecom industry

The non-profit Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute (CHLI) hosted an event on Capitol Hill Wednesday during which an impressive line-up of tech policy analysts argued against strictly regulating the telecom industry.

Consumer and public interest groups have called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to re-categorize Internet service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, so that strong “net neutrality” rules, requiring broadband companies to treat all content on the internet equally, can be enforced.

The speakers—who included academics, politicians and think tank analysts—argued such a move would hobble the open Internet, “cripple capital investment in the tech industry,” and harm Hispanic as well as other “minority and disenfranchised communities.”

It all sounded very dire. In fact, by the time the hour-and-half long event gave way to an evening reception, it was hard to shake the impression that if public and consumer interest groups get their way, the very fabric of modern society—technological innovation! equality! free speech!—would be torn asunder.

But before you run off and phone your Congressman, there’s one thing you need to remember: that event Wednesday was funded in part by the telecom industry.

You’d be forgiven for missing that fact.

Held in an elegant, wood-paneled room in the Dirksen Senate Building, the event was formally hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute (CHLI), a congressional group founded in 2003 to foster “a broad awareness of the diversity of thought, heritage, interests and views of Americans of Hispanic and Portuguese descent.” Among CHLI’s sponsors are the three biggest players in the telecom industry: Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T.

CHLI’s co-host, Ibarra Strategy Group, gets funding from Verizon.

The event was a part of CHLI’s “Congressional Briefing Series,” which is underwritten by Verizon, Comcast-NBCUniversal, AT&T, and Telemundo, a subsidiary of Comcast-NBCUniversal, as well as others, like Pfizer and AARP.

All of the event’s panelists happen to work, or recently to have worked, for organizations that are funded by the telecom industry. For example, Doug Brake, who has written numerous articles slamming calls for strong net neutrality rules, including one for Forbes, in which he dismissed net neutrality advocates as “paranoid bloggers,” is employed by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which, according to Reuters, receives funding from the telecom industry.

Two of the panelists were also affiliated with the Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP), which has received funding from AT&T: Martin Chavez, the former three-term mayor of Albuquerque, is HTTP’s senior advisor. Jason Llorenz, who presented as an academic from Rutgers University, was recently HTTP’s executive director.

CHLI executive director Mary Ann Gomez told TIME that the event had nothing to do with its sponsors or their sponsors’ policy preferences; however, CHLI asks its sponsors to suggest themes for its yearly “Congressional Briefing Series.” CHLI also asks its sponsors to suggest the speakers who present at these events. All of CHLI’s sponsors underwrite all the events throughout the year, not just the panels that have to do with their policy interests, Gomez said.

So what’s this all about? For the last six months, public and consumer interest groups have been calling on the FCC to consider re-categorizing the telecom industry as a “Title II” industry, along with traditional phone companies. Advocates say that doing so would give the agency formal jurisdiction over broadband services—jurisdiction that has been challenged recently in the courts.

In 2010, the FCC passed net neutrality rules requiring broadband providers to treat all content that passes over its pipes equally, regardless of its source, but in January of this year, a federal district court overturned those rules on the grounds that the agency did not have jurisdiction over such services. The telecom industry has described the effort to re-categorize it as a “Title II” industry as a “radical” “nuclear option.”

So in May, the FCC proposed a new set of net neutrality rules that would allow web companies to pay broadband providers, like Verizon and Comcast, to deliver their content more quickly and in better quality than content from other sources. Netflix, for example, pays Comcast for access to a “fast lane” so that its content can stream more quickly.

The telecom industry says that “net neutrality” can exist simultaneously with such “paid prioritization agreements.” Consumer interest advocates such as Public Knowledge say that’s hooey. “Allowing rich companies to pay for fast lanes, while the rest of us have to compete for the same congested lane—that’s not net neutrality,” said John Bergmayer, a senior counsel at Public Knowledge.

The FCC is accepting public comments on its proposed net neutrality rules until July 15. At least we know now where CHLI stands.

TIME Courts

Supreme Court Deals Public Unions a Blow

Supreme Court Delivers Decisions Against Aereo And Rules In Favor Of Cellphone Privacy
The U.S. Supreme Court is shown on June 25, 2014 in Washington. Win McNamee—Getty Images

In sharply-divided 5-4 decision

The Supreme Court decided Monday that public sector unions cannot collect “fair share” fees from non-union-members, in a 5-4 decision that dealt unions a sharp blow.

The much-awaited decision limits, but does not reverse, the court’s well-trodden ruling from 1977, known as Abood. In that case, the court found that requiring non-union-members to pay “fair share” fees did not violate workers’ First Amendment rights, so long as those fees do not go to advancing specifically “political or ideological” ends.

The decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, marks a loss for public sector unions, which may see their coffers and power depleted in coming years, although it’s not the worst-case scenario that many labor activists feared. The ruling stopped short of finding all “fair share” dues unconstitutional. It also does not affect all full-time public employees, but only a category called “partial public employees,” which includes a growing sector of home heath care workers.

The decision also marks a victory for the anti-union group, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which is backed by many hardline conservatives, including the Koch family. Representing the plaintiff, the Legal Defense Foundation argued that requiring non-union-members to pay some “fair share” union fees was the same as requiring them to pay to support “political or ideological ends.” Their argument hinged on the idea that, in this day and age, any involvement with a union is inherently “political or ideological.”

During oral arguments in January, Justice Anthony Kennedy posed a series of hard questions about the harm done to the workers who did not support the existence of the union and yet were required to pay union fees, although he stopped short of suggesting he thought it was a First Amendment question. Justice Stephen Breyer worried that “the courts of the United States are going to fashion, using the First Amendment as their weapon, a new special labor law for government employees.”

The ruling is arguably the most significant labor law decision since the 1980s and may significantly weaken many public sector unions across the country by essentially placing them under the same rules that exist in “right to work” states. In “right to work” states, it is illegal to require workers in most sectors to pay any union fees. In such states, labor unions’ power has dwindled precipitously in the last three decades; public sector unions are the only unions that remained relatively strong across the country. It’s particularly significant for the home health care industry, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to grow by roughly 70 percent in the next decade.

This case, Harris v. Quinn, dealt with home care workers in Illinois who care for the disabled. The plaintiff, Pamela Harris, cares for her adult son who suffers from a rare genetic disorder. In that capacity, Harris receives a Medicare check to act as her son’s caregiver. Because her paycheck is from the government, she is considered a partial employee of the state, and therefore represented by the union Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Illinois-Indiana.

According to a contract between SEIU Healthcare and Illinois, and about 10 other states, home care workers were obligated to pay fees to SEIU to cover the expenses associated with bargaining, whether or not they were union members. Non-union-members also benefited from union-negotiated contracts. Since organizing in 2003, home care workers’ rages got bargained up from $5 an hour to $11.85 an hour, and will rise to $13 in December, according to Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post.

Like many others like it, the SEIU’s contract with the states was designed to avoid freeloading and drew its legal foundation from the court’s decision in Abood. But in this case, Harris and her fellow plaintiffs argued that being required to pay union fees amounted to “forced association” with a group with whom they may disagree, which amounts to a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The plaintiffs’ argument was built largely on an often-revisited caveat within the 1977 Abood decision, in which the court specified that while non-union members could be required to pay fees for collective bargaining, their money could not be used in any way to support a union’s political or ideological activity. Under that standard, forcing a worker to pay to support a certain variety of political speech—rather than economic bargaining—would be a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Over the last 37 years, there have been repeated legal challenges questioning where, exactly, that line is drawn, but the court has repeatedly upheld its decision in Abood. The decision today, while not overturning Abood, significantly limits the scope of that decision which may have serious ramifications for many unions that collect “fair share” fees.

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