David Sirota

Trump Administration Mysteriously Grants Lucrative Waiver to Bank That President Owes Millions

The Trump administration has waived part of the punishment for five megabanks whose affiliates were convicted and fined for manipulating global interest rates. One of the Trump administration waivers was granted to Deutsche Bank — which is owed at least $130 million by President Donald Trump and his business empire, and has also been fined for…

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Tax Bill: Fossil Fuel Provision Would Personally Enrich Republican Lawmakers

When Texas Sen. John Cornyn slipped an obscure tax break for pipeline giants into the GOP tax bill, he wasn't just helping major Republican Party donors, he was also potentially helping 16 of his congressional colleagues. Together those 16 lawmakers — 13  Republicans, three Democrats — own multimillion-dollar stakes in the special investment vehicles that stand to benefit from Cornyn’s amendment. They include three of members of the Texas Congressional delegation: Sen. Ted Cruz and two top Republicans in the U.S. House.

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Robert Reich: How Clinton and Obama Failed to Defend the Middle Class

How did Donald Trump win the presidency? In a new podcast interview with International Business Times, former Clinton adminstration Labor Secretary Robert Reich says the Republican was able to take advantage of voters' frustration with both parties' failure to confront corporations' growing power over American life — and Reich faulted Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama…

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Can Socialists Win the American Suburbs for Democrats?

Can Socialists Win The Suburbs For Democrats?

Should Democrats present a moderate corporate-friendly agenda to try to win suburban swing voters, or should they instead embrace the populist politics of Bernie Sanders? Lee Carter, the self-described socialist who won a pivotal election in Virginia this week, says the latter path is the only way forward. In a podcast interview with International Business Times,…

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Were the 2016 Democratic Primaries Rigged?

Was the 2016 Democratic primary rigged? It depends on what your definition of the word “rigged” is — but a top campaign adviser to Bernie Sanders declared that after new revelations this past week, “it is unquestionably the case that the DNC was not neutral” during the contest. That declaration came during an International Business Times…

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Pussy Riot Founder Slams Liberals' Obsession with Putin

Vladimir Putin has become a fixture in the U.S. political conversation, as a majority of Americans have come to believe he helped rig the 2016 election for Donald Trump. Yet one prominent anti-Putin activist who was jailed by the Russian government says, in a new podcast interview, that America's political class is deliberately promoting an inaccurate…

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The Department of Justice's Corporate Watchdog Resigns in Disgust, Slams Trump on the Way Out

One of the Justice Department’s top corporate crime watchdogs has resigned, declaring that she cannot enforce ethics laws against companies while, she asserts, her own bosses in the Trump administration have been engaging in conduct that she said she would never tolerate in corporations. Hui Chen -- a former Pfizer and Microsoft lawyer who also was…

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Why Progressives Lose - Even In California

As Republican lawmakers grapple with their unpopular bill to repeal Obamacare, Democrats have tried to present a united front on health care. But for all their populist rhetoric against insurance and drug companies, Democratic powerbrokers and their allies remain deeply divided on the issue — to the point where a political civil war has spilled into…

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Impeach Trump and You’d Get ‘Zealot’ Pence, Franken Says

If Donald Trump were impeached, as some Democrats would like, Mike Pence “would be worse” for domestic policy than the current president, U.S. Sen. Al Franken told International Business Times. But the vice president would be less dangerous on foreign policy, said Franken. Franken made the comments in an interview with IBT during a stop on…

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Trump's Businesses Have a Long, Nasty History of Money-Laundering Charges

Special prosecutor Robert Mueller, appointed to lead the probe of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, is reportedly examining whether or not President Donald Trump’s associates violated money laundering laws. That scrutiny is hardly unfamiliar to Trump, as his business empire has been repeatedly sanctioned for violating those statutes. He even at one point…

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Bernie Sanders Sounds the Alarm: 'We Are Drifting Toward Authoritarianism'

During a speech to thousands of activists in Chicago this weekend, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called the Democratic Party’s political strategy “an absolute failure” and he urged party leaders to begin promoting a more forceful populist economic agenda. After the speech, Sanders spoke with International Business Times’ David Sirota about his renewed push for single-payer health…

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What Can Democrats Learn from the Left's Stunning Triumph in the British Elections?

Does The British Election Offer Lessons For Democrats?

Who is Jeremy Corbyn and how did he send such a shockwave through global politics? Millions of people around the world are asking that question as British election results appeared to show stunning gains for the Labour Party less than a year after the Brexit vote. I tried to find some answers by calling up community…

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How Democrats Help Big Pharma Keep Drug Prices High

Wide majorities of voters want public officials to reduce American medicine prices, which are the highest in the world and have become a key driver of skyrocketing healthcare costs. And yet as politicians including Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have continued to call for a crackdown, corporate power players have successfully blocked even minimal reforms —…

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NJ Senator Cory Booker Has Received Boatloads of Campaign Cash from Jared Kushner

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker — a potential 2020 White House contender and recipient of major campaign contributions from Jared Kushner and others in the Kushner family — declined to endorse his party's call for the White House to revoke the security clearance of the president's son-in-law. The Democratic National Committee has called for Kushner's…

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Trump Administration Making Ominous Sounds Toward Colorado on Legal Pot

President Donald Trump’s aides have publicly promised a crackdown on states that have legalized marijuana — and the new White House administration may already be taking steps to make good on that pledge, according to an email obtained by International Business Times. The correspondence showed a Justice Department official requesting information about marijuana cases from the…

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Cuomo Opposes Legal Weed, While Helping His Alcohol Industry Donors

Cuomo Opposes Legal Weed, While Helping His Alcohol Industry Donors

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo waded into the national debate over drug policy, declaring his opposition to legalizing cannabis and asserting (despite research to the contrary) that using pot leads to the use of other, stronger narcotics. Cuomo has long promoted the alcohol industry, whose donors have bankrolled his election campaigns and whose businesses could be…

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Prosecution of White Collar Crime Hits 20-Year Low

Just a few years after the financial crisis, a new report tells an important story: Federal prosecution of white-collar crime has hit a 20-year low.

The analysis by Syracuse University shows a more than 36 percent decline in such prosecutions since the middle of the Clinton administration, when the decline began. Landing amid calls from Democratic presidential candidates for more Wall Street prosecutions, the report notes that the projected number of prosecutions this year is 12 percent less than last year and 29 percent less than five years ago.

“The decline in federal white-collar crime prosecutions does not necessarily indicate there has been a decline in white-collar crime,” Syracuse researchers note. “Rather, it may reflect shifting enforcement policies by each of the administrations and the various agencies.”

Underscoring that assertion is a recent study by researchers at George Mason University tracking the increased use of special Justice Department agreements that allow corporations -- and often their executives -- to avoid being prosecuted. Before 2003, researchers found, the Justice Department offered almost no such deals. The researchers report that from 2007 to 2011, 44 percent of cases were resolved through the deals -- known as deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements.

In 2012, President Obama pledged to “hold Wall Street accountable” for financial misdeeds related to the financial crisis. But as financial industry donations flooded into Obama’s re-election campaign, his Justice Department officials promoted policies that critics say embodied a “too big to jail” doctrine for financial crime.

In a 2012 speech, for example, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, Lanny Breuer, said “collateral consequences of an indictment,” such as layoffs, losses for corporate shareholders and the health of an industry, factor into the Obama administration’s prosecutorial decisions.

“In reaching every charging decision, we must take into account the effect of an indictment on innocent employees and shareholders,” said Breuer.

Similarly, in 2013, Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, told congressional lawmakers that when it comes to banks, “I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult to prosecute them.” He said there is an “inhibiting impact” on the Obama Justice Department’s willingness to prosecute a bank when bringing a criminal charge "[would] have a negative impact on the national economy.”

Holder’s 2013 comments were foreshadowed by a 1999 memo he wrote as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. In it, Holder recommended that prosecutors consider “[c]ollateral consequences, including disproportionate harm to shareholders and employees not proven personally culpable” before attempting to convict corporations for wrongdoing.

In May, the House Financial Services Committee subpoenaed the Justice Department about the policy. A press release from committee chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, asserted that the Obama administration was “stonewalling” in providing more details about “whether decisions are being made to prosecute or not prosecute financial institutions based upon their size.”

Prior to serving in the Obama Justice Department, both Breuer and Holder worked at white-collar defense firm Covington & Burling. Both of them went back to work for the firm again immediately after leaving their government posts. 

For his part, Holder has recently defended the administration’s record of not prosecuting any individual financial executive involved in the financial crisis. He says the fines the administration has assessed against financial institutions were effective.

“People tend to undervalue what we did with the banks,” Holder told the Financial Times. “Given the nature of the penalties that were extracted, given the interactions that we had with people at the banks, with those attorneys who represented the banks, I think the cultures have changed.”

Left unexplained is how those cultures have supposedly changed when many of the same individuals who were involved in the financial crisis have managed to avoid any punishment.

Hillary Clinton Is Running Away from Her Free Trade Record

In her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton has lately promoted herself as a populist defender of the middle class. To that end, she attempted to distance herself last week from a controversial 12-nation trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would set the rules of commerce for roughly 40 percent of the world's economy.

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Has the U.S. Learned Anything From Edward Snowden's NSA Revelations?

Two years ago this month, a 29-year-old government contractor named Edward Snowden became the Daniel Ellsberg of his generation, delivering to journalists a tranche of secret documents shedding light on the government's national security apparatus. But whereas Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers detailing one specific military conflict in Southeast Asia, Snowden released details of the U.S. government's sprawling surveillance machine that operates around the globe.

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Can Jeb Bush Be His 'Own Man'?

Jeb Bush's last name comes with advantages that are difficult to overstate. In a presidential race, he gets, among other things, instant name recognition and a built-in fundraising apparatus from his father and brother. Those assets alone explain why a man who hasn't won an election in more than a decade is nonetheless considered a serious contender for his party's presidential nomination.

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The Marijuana Economy Is Coming Out of the Shadows

The convention floor at Denver Airport's Crowne Plaza on a recent afternoon could have been the trade show for any well-established industry -- gray-haired execs in conservative suits mingling with office park dads in polos and fresh-out-of-college types in brand-emblazoned T-shirts. Only this is a new kind of business conference with a special Colorado theme: legal weed.

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Keep the Money Coming: Hillary Clinton and Her Supporters Seem to Embrace Citizens United

Less than three weeks into her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has already accomplished a stunning feat: She appears to have unified large swaths of the Democratic Party and its activist base to support the core tenets of the Citizens United decision -- the one that effectively allowed unlimited money into politics.

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Cities And States Paying Massive Secret Fees To Wall Street

California’s report said $440 million. New Jersey’s said $600 million. In Pennsylvania, the tally is $700 million. Those Wall Street fees paid by public workers’ pension systems have kicked off an intensifying debate over whether such expenses are necessary. Now, a report from an industry-friendly source says those huge levies represent only a fraction of the true amounts being raked in by Wall Street firms from state and local governments.

“Less than oneâ€�half of the very substantial [private equity] costs incurred by U.S. pension funds are currently being disclosed,” says the report from CEM, whose website says the financial analysis firm "serve(s) over 350 blue-chip corporate and government clients worldwide."

Currently, about 9 percent -- or $270 billion -- of America’s $3 trillion public pension fund assets are invested in private equity firms. With the financial industry’s standard 2 percent management fee, that quarter-trillion dollars generates roughly $5.4 billion in annual management fees for the private equity industry -- and that’s not including additional “performance” fees paid on investment returns. If CEM’s calculations are applied uniformly, it could mean taxpayers and retirees may actually be paying double -- more than $10 billion a year. 

Public officials are overseeing this massive payout to Wall Street at the very moment many of those same officials are demanding big cuts to retirees' promised pension benefits. 

“With billions of public worker and taxpayer dollars put at risk in the highest-cost, most opaque investment schemes ever devised by Wall Street for a decade now, investigations that hold Wall Street profiteers accountable are long, long overdue,” said former Securities and Exchange Commission attorney Ted Siedle.

Private equity firms have argued that their fees are worth the expense, because they supposedly deliver returns for investors that beat low-fee index funds which track the broader stock market. But those private equity returns are typically self-reported by the firms over the life of those longer-term investments, meaning there are few ways to verify whether the returns are real. Indeed, a recent study from George Washington University argued that private equity firms are using their self-reporting authority to mislead investors into believing their returns are smoother and more consistent than they actually are.

In a 2014 speech, the SEC’s top examiner, Andrew Bowden, sounded the alarm about undisclosed fees in the private equity industry, saying the agency had discovered “violations of law or material weaknesses in controls over 50 percent of the time” at firms it had evaluated. 

To date, however, the SEC has taken few actions to crack down on the practices, but some states are starting to step up their oversight. 

In New Jersey, for instance, pension trustees announced a formal investigation of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration after evidence surfaced suggesting that the Republican administration has not been disclosing all state pension fees paid to financial firms. 

In Rhode Island, the new state treasurer, Seth Magaziner, a Democrat, recently published a review of all the fees that state’s beleaguered pension fund has paid. The analysis revealed that the former financial firm of Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is charging the state’s pension fund the highest fee rate of any firm in its asset class.

In Pennsylvania, the new Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf used his first budget address to call for the state “to stop excessive fees to Wall Street managers.” 

These moves are shining a spotlight on one of the most lucrative yet little-noticed Wall Street schemes. With so much money at issue – and with pensioners retirement income on the line -- that scrutiny is long overdue.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." Email him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website atwww.davidsirota.com

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The Republican Party's Ridiculous Parade of Phony Libertarians

In Republican primary politics, the libertarian brand carries cachet, which explains why many of the GOP's presidential candidates are battling to position themselves as the one true standard-bearer of small government conservatism. But a funny thing is happening on the way to the Republican primaries: The whole notion of small government libertarianism has been hijacked by politicians who often represent the opposite.

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The Ugly Truth Behind Chris Christie's Sweetheart Deal with Exxon

Last week, Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration settled New Jersey's long-standing environmental lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp. for pennies on the dollar. For a decade, the state had been seeking $8.9 billion in damages for pollution at two refineries in the northern part of the state, and yet Christie's top officials abruptly proposed closing the case for just $225 million.
        In the aftermath, as environmentalists express outrage and legislators move to block the settlement, the question on many observers' minds has been simple: Why did Christie settle?
        One possible answer is just as simple: money -- more specifically, campaign cash.
        According to federal records, Exxon Mobil has donated more than $1.9 million to the Republican Governors Association since Christie's first run for governor in 2009. That includes $279,000 during Christie's election and reelection races, and also another half million when he chaired the organization in 2014. Additionally, one of Exxon's law firms in the New Jersey case also donated $30,000 to the RGA since 2013.
        Another possible answer could be relationships.
        Christie's first attorney general worked for Exxon for seven years. His deputy chief of staff in 2014 left the governor's office for a job with Exxon's lobbying firm in Trenton. And weeks before the settlement was announced, one of his cabinet secretaries took a job with Exxon's New Jersey law firm.
        Still another possible answer about why Christie settled the Exxon case could be found in a little-noticed provision his administration slipped into the annual budget in 2014.
        The language in question empowers the governor to divert money obtained from environmental litigation away from pollution cleanup programs and into the state's general fund, where it can be used to fill budget gaps or finance corporate subsidies. The provision explicitly takes precedence over other state laws designed to direct proceeds from environmental lawsuits into New Jersey's environmental protection programs.
        Because the provision is temporary, remaining in force only until a new budget is enacted, critics say that it effectively encourages Christie's administration to settle cases as quickly as possible to free up cash that the governor can then tap however he sees fit. The most expedient way to accelerate a settlement is to lessen the fines sought from the company facing the lawsuit.
        "This is money that rightfully belongs to the people of New Jersey to make up for the injury to the environment," said Jeffrey Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "Instead, the governor is diverting it for other purposes. It's a twofer: Reduced settlements help the oil companies before Christie's presidential campaign, and Christie can quickly get more money for the record amounts of corporate subsidies he is handing out."
        So which answer is correct? Is the settlement a product of campaign cash, relationships or budget machinations? It is hard to say for certain, but in all likelihood it is probably a little bit of all three -- plus some presidential campaign calculation sprinkled in.
        In politics, as rare as it is to see a policy decision made on the substantive merits of an issue, it is even rarer that a decision is only about one thing. Most often, decisions represent a mixture of motivations. In agreeing to such a small settlement in the Exxon case, Christie placates his politically connected colleagues and gets himself some extra cash to spend on his budget's new tax cuts. He also gives a gift to an oil industry donor just as he starts raising money for a 2016 White House bid.
        Sure, the settlement may not be great policy, but it may be shrewd short-term politics. That divergence is hardly surprising -- at this moment in history, good policy and good politics are not often synonymous.

The Rich Pay State and Local Taxes at Half the Rate the Rest of Us Do

Roads are crumbling, bridges require repairs, schools need upgrades and public pension systems remain underfunded. How can states and cities find the money to address any of these problems? One way could be through their tax codes.

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Why the Toxic Myths Rich People Believe About the Poor Are So Dangerous

American politics are dominated by those with money. As such, America's tax debate is dominated by voices that insist the rich are unduly persecuted by high taxes and that low-income folks are living the high life. Indeed, a new survey by the Pew Research Center recently found that the most financially secure Americans believe "poor people today have it easy."
The rich are certainly entitled to their own opinions -- but, as the old saying goes, nobody is entitled to their own facts. With that in mind, here's a set of tax facts that's worth considering: Middle- and low-income Americans are facing far higher state and local tax rates than the wealthy. In all, a comprehensive analysis by the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds that the poorest 20 percent of households pay on average more than twice the effective state and local tax rate (10.9 percent) as the richest 1 percent of taxpayers (5.4 percent).
ITEP researchers say the incongruity derives from state and local governments' reliance on sales, excise and property taxes rather than on more progressively structured income taxes that increase rates on higher earnings. They argue that the tax disconnect is helping create the largest wealth gap between the rich and middle class in American history.
"In recent years, multiple studies have revealed the growing chasm between the wealthy and everyone else," Matt Gardner, executive director of ITEP, said. "Upside-down state tax systems didn't cause the growing income divide, but they certainly exacerbate the problem. State policymakers shouldn't wring their hands or ignore the problem. They should thoroughly explore and enact tax reform policies that will make their tax systems fairer."
The 10 states with the largest gap between tax rates on the rich and poor are a politically and geographically diverse group -- from traditional Republican bastions such as Texas and Arizona to Democratic strongholds such as Illinois and Washington.
The latter state, reports ITEP, is the most regressive of all. Four years after billionaire moguls such as Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Microsoft's Steve Ballmer funded a campaign to defeat an income tax ballot measure, Washington now makes low-income families pay seven times the effective tax rate that the rich pay. That's right, those in the poorest 20 percent of Washington households pay on average 16.8 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while Washington's 1-percenters pay just 2.4 percent of their income. Like many of the other regressive tax states, Washington imposes no personal income tax all.
"The problem with our state tax systems is that we are asking far more of those who can afford the least," concludes ITEM's state director Wiehe.
By contrast, the states identified as having the smallest gap in effective tax rates are California, Delaware, Minnesota, Oregon and Vermont -- all Democratic strongholds and all relying more heavily on progressively structured income taxes. Montana is the only Republican-leaning state ITEP researchers identify among the states with the least regressive tax rates.
Of course, if you aren't poor, you may be reading this and thinking that these trends have no real-world impact on your life. But think again: In September, Standard & Poor's released a study showing that increasing economic inequality hurts economic growth and subsequently reduces public revenue. As important, the report found that the correlation between high inequality and low economic growth was highest in states that relied most heavily on regressive levies such as sales taxes.
In other words, regressive state and local tax policies don't just harm the poor -- they end up harming entire economies. So if altruism doesn't prompt you to care about unfair tax rates and economic inequality, then it seems self-interest should.

That’s Rich! Why So Many Wealthy Americans Think They’re Middle Class

By Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s reckoning, being a millionaire does not constitute living high above the ranks of ordinary people. Lew said last week that back when he was in the private sector enjoying six- and seven-figure pay packages, “My own compensation was never in the stratosphere.”

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Charter Schools Accused of Segregating America's Education System

Charter schools are often promoted as a tool to address educational inequities, but a potential precedent-setting legal case launched earlier this month says the opposite. In filings with the U.S. Department of Education, two Delaware nonprofit groups allege that some of the state's publicly funded, privately managed schools are actively resegregating the education system -- and in a way that violates federal civil rights law.
        The complaint, by the Delaware branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Community Legal Aid Society, cites data showing that more than three-quarters of Delaware's charter schools are "racially identifiable" -- a term that describes schools whose demographics are substantially different from the surrounding community.
        According to the complaint, "High-performing charter schools are almost entirely racially identifiable as white" while "low-income students and students with disabilities are disproportionately relegated to failing charter schools and charter schools that are racially identifiable as African-American or Hispanic."
        The groups are asking the Obama administration to take specific steps, including prohibiting subjective admissions policies for charter schools and barring extra fees for attending charter schools -- factors they say discriminate against low-income, disabled and minority students.
        Because the case is being filed with the federal government, these actions could have implications for school districts everywhere - and there is already plenty of data tying charter schools to segregation.
        In 2010, a University of Colorado report analyzing charter schools found that "as compared with the public school district in which the charter school resided, the charter schools were substantially more segregated by race, wealth, disabling condition and language." Similarly, in reviewing a decade worth of research about charter schools, George Washington University education researcher Iris Rotberg earlier this year concluded that "charter schools often lead to increased school segregation ... and lead to the stratification of students who were previously in integrated environments."
        Meanwhile, a General Accountability Office study in 2012 showed that "charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools."
        The causes of educational segregation are a point of debate. Charter school defenders, for example, argue that the trends may merely reflect geography.
        "A naive examination ... appears to show that the critics are right: More choice is associated with minority students attending less diverse schools," wrote the Brookings Institution's Matthew M. Chingos in his 2013 study of education data. "Of course, this relationship ignores the fact that charters tend to locate in areas that serve large shares of disadvantaged students and members of minority groups. As a result, this simple correlation tells us nothing about whether charters increase segregation or just tend to locate in areas where the schools are already segregated."
        Yet, in the Delaware case, the nonprofit groups blame charter schools' admissions requirements for effectively promoting discrimination.
        "These requirements include high examination scores, essays written by parents to explain why a school is a good choice for their child, access to gifted and talented elementary and middle school programs that help increase academic performance, annual activities fees, mandatory parent involvement and mandatory high-cost uniform purchases," the ACLU said in a statement announcing the complaint. "Such barriers prevent students from low-income African-American and Hispanic families from having the same access to high-quality charter schools that middle- and upper-class families have."
        In May, the Department of Education warned charter school administrators that their admissions policies "may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color or national origin."
        That warning was issued almost exactly 60 years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling that began officially desegregating America's schools. In those six decades, much progress has been made on civil rights -- but the trends documented in Delaware show there is still a long way to go.

Wall Street to Workers: Give Us Your Retirement Savings and Stop Asking Questions

If you are a public school teacher in Kentucky, the state has a message for you: You have no right to know the details of the investments being made with your retirement savings.

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Good Luck in Getting Answers About Your Pension Investments

If you are a public school teacher in Kentucky, the state has a message for you: You have no right to know the details of the investments being made with your retirement savings. That was the crux of the declaration issued by state officials to a high school history teacher when he asked to see the terms of the agreements between the Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System and the Wall Street firms that are managing the system's money on behalf of him, his colleagues and thousands of retirees.

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