Sharmini Peries

Developer Welfare: Trump’s Infrastructure Plan

While protestors and police were clashing on the inaugural parade route in Washington, D.C., the newly sworn-in president of the United States was lunching with the establishment in Washington—some of the very people he called out in his inaugural address.

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Oakland Puts a Big Stop on Massive Coal Project

On June 27, the Oakland, California City Council voted unanimously to block the handling and storage of large shipments of coal at a new proposed portside terminal. Joining us now to discuss the environmental justice victory in Oakland is Irene Gutierrez. She is an attorney in Earthjustice's California regional office, and much of her work has involved this issue.

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Greenpeace Leaks Secret Pro-Corporate Trade Agreement

 On Monday Greenpeace Netherlands released secret TTIP negotiation documents. Greenpeace says that the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, a trade deal between Europe and the United States, would considerably lower food safety and environmental standards. On the website,, it states that they have leaked the document to provide much-needed transparency and trigger an informed debate on the treaty. This treaty is threatening to have far-reaching implications for the environment and the lives of more than 800 million citizens in the EU and the US. Greenpeace not only held a press conference on Monday to expose the negotiations, but also projected experts from the leaked TTIP documents on the German parliament building. They also set up a glass box reading room in front of the iconic Brandenburger Gate where the public could read the TTIP papers. Negotiations have been notoriously done in secret, behind closed doors, as they have with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With us to discuss the leaked document and why we should be concerned is Jorgo Riss. He's the Greenpeace EU director. He is joining us from Brussels. Jorgo, so good to have you with us today.

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Castro to Obama: U.S. Has Double Standards When it Comes to Human Rights

President Barack Obama is currently in Cuba. He's accompanied by 40 members of Congress and various business leaders. President Raul Castro and President Obama had a joint press conference this afternoon, and this is what they had to say.
Watch: Interview with The Real News Network. Full transcript below.
RAUL CASTRO: There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away. Since we hold different [concepts] on many subjects, such as political systems, democracy, the exercise of human rights, social justice, international relations, and world peace and stability. We defend human rights. In our view, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible, interdependent, and universal. Actually, we find it inconceivable that a government does not defend and ensure the right to healthcare, education, social security, food provision, and development, equal pay, and the rights of children. We oppose political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights.
BARACK OBAMA: But as you heard, President Castro has also addressed what he views as shortcomings in the United States, around basic needs for people and poverty and inequality, and race relations. And we welcome that constructive dialog as well, because we believe that when we share our deepest beliefs and ideas with an attitude of mutual respect, that we can both learn, and make the lives of our people better.
PERIES: On to talk about the president's trip to Havana, as well as the larger issue of U.S.-Cuba relations, is Lawrence Wilkerson. Lawrence is the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and he's currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary. And of course, he's a regular at the Real News Network. Larry, thank you so much for joining us today.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thank you, Sharmini.
PERIES: So, Larry, beyond all of these niceties and baseball games, and various discussions that are going on, President Castro, in his press conference statement, critiqued the United States for the double standards it's applying when it comes to human rights in Cuba. He particularly named the U.S. treatment of African-Americans, and the standards of poverty in this country, and said that, you know, everything is on the table when you're talking about human rights. What do you make of that?
WILKERSON: Well, I think at the end of the day, we as Americans have to admit that there's some truth in what he's saying. That in no way, fashion, or form justifies the oppression of the Cuban people that has been quite apparent under the Castros. But it would be hypocritical to the maximum for me to sit here and to claim that there's no truth whatsoever to what Raul Castro said, or for that matter what any critic of the United States, be they European, Japanese, or whatever would say if he or she were speaking the truth. We do have problems in this country. I would hasten to add that I don't think the problems approach the depth and profundity of the problems that occurred in places like the Soviet Union, that occurred in Russia even today, or that occur in places like Cuba, when it comes to the broad scope of human rights that we haul out from time to time to show the world is the right scope. That said, I have to admit there is some hypocrisy in what we say, and frankly I wish, as an American citizen, that we would quit doing things like rendering human rights reports, and so forth, and judging others by standards that we ourselves oftentimes don't live up to. I think it's rather nonsense. I think the world should deal with the world as the world is. We should report on the world as the world is. We should all strive to make it a better world. But calling our neighbors and friends officially in reports, which I think we're probably the only country in the world, perhaps the European Union does, too, that deliver these reports on a consistent basis that damn other people for their government's processes and for what they do inside their own borders.
I think that's counterproductive, in the long [line], and I think it makes the Congress and others feel good, but it really doesn't add to the benefits that we'd hope would accrue from having good relations with the rest of the world.
PERIES: Now, Larry, Americans have been particularly isolating Cuba in terms of its human rights violations, and President Obama is also meeting with a group of dissidents during his visit. What are the specific pet peeves that the U.S. have in terms of Cuba? Now, you've been involved in these kinds of talks for a while now, through the State Department. Give us a sense of what they are.
WILKERSON: I think the things that we discuss in the more or less Track 2 type discussions we had with the Cubans for the last nine years in Brazil and Mexico, in Canada, in Washington, and in Havana, I think the things that came up there that disturbed me the most were the lack of potential for the Cuban people because they had been restricted from participating in what I would call the almost-free market of the world's economy. They lack a lot of balance in their economy because of that, and they lack a lot of opportunity. And what I mean by that, for example, this is anecdotal but nonetheless indicative, when you have a doctor of enormous skills, or a surgeon, even, or other people of functional expertise and so forth who are earning the same or less, less in many cases, now, than taxi drivers, or others who might be more entrepreneurial because the system allows them to be, you've got a problem. You ought to reward the talent, the study, the discipline, the skills within your society at least somewhat commensurate with the dedication and the professionalism and the benefit that that skill gives to society. So I would like to see--and I think many of the Cubans I encountered in these discussions would like to see a more open economy, a more market-oriented economy, and therefore much more opportunity for some really talented people. One thing I found out is just how talented the Cuban people are, in everything from Shakespeare to business. And so they would have a better opportunity to succeed in a more open economy. That's the first thing I saw.
PERIES: Now, of course, President Raul Castro pointed out the double standards, as I mentioned earlier. But this double standard also applies to other countries in the region. I mean, President Obama isn't going to Mexico and talking about their human rights violations, or to Columbia and talking about their human rights abuses, and the number of journalists that are being killed, which is--Columbia has one of the worst records when it comes to freedom of the press. And what is that double standard all about, and is it fair to Cuba to do what they're doing?
WILKERSON: I think we have to understand that President Obama has to sort of guard his flanks and his rear as he more or less executes the first visit to Cuba in probably more than a century, or certainly close to a century. And as he attempts, even more importantly, to effect the rapprochement, at least closer relations, with Cuba that have happened in the last half century-plus, he's got to guard his flanks and his rear. And what I mean by that, he's got to protect against those people politically, but particularly in my Republican party, who are going to attack him at every opportunity for being lax on everything from residual communism to human rights abuses, and so forth.
So he's got to single these things out, he's got to talk about them. Not that he's not sincere, not that we're not sincere about them. But he's got to do that. [This is] he has to do that in Beijing. I remember remarking one time, and it was the case that any time we started conversations with the Chinese in the summer of 2001, when I was really heavily involved in it, we had to give our talking points on human rights abuses, failure to have freedom of religion, and so forth and so on. And then, in turn the Chinese had to give their talking points on Taiwan, and so forth. So this is something that's pro forma, in many respects, but it is certainly political in that President Obama has to protect himself with regard to those who are going to scream and holler, and weep, and gnash and pull their hair out because of this new policy he's effected with respect to Cuba.
PERIES: Now, I think all in all the trip is going well so far. The president is also expected to attend a baseball match, and I know you want to talk about that, Larry. But he's also accompanied by 40-some U.S. Congresspeople on both sides of the House, the Republicans and the Democrats. He said in his press conference statement that this has reflected eagerness on the part of the American government to reestablish relations and commercial interests with Cuba. Give us a sense of what those commercial interests are to begin with, and then you can comment on your baseball game.
WILKERSON: We found a number of commercial interests as we were doing this Track 2 dialogue with the Cubans. And as we talked with people from Texas and Louisiana and Georgia and others who might be interested, it's everything from chickens to oil. It's everything from sugar to rice to wheat, you name it. Whatever we produce that Cubans need, and whatever Cubans may produce that we need. It's, as you might expect, it's trade interest and it's environmental interest, protecting the pristine mangrove swamps, for example, in Cuba and so forth. There are enormous interests that go beyond commercial interests. And let me say that one of the things that we used to talk about all the time, Colin Powell and I used to talk about all the time, with regard to places like North Korea and Cuba, for that matter, the old Soviet Union, China, when you open up and you interface with these communities, you bring the weight and the influence of the American people, both commercial interest and other interest, religious and so forth, onto that society. And there's no more effective way of changing that society for the better than contact with Americans like that. I think that's fairly true. There are some negative sides to it, too, of course. But I think basically opening up and dealing with other countries, especially countries whose systems are more regressive or oppressive, is far better than closing them off, building a wall around them, and saying, as Dick Cheney used to say, I never speak to evil, and having no dealings with them whatsoever. Whether those dealings are commercial or trade-oriented, which they will be, or whether they're, as I've said, religious or environmental or whatever, I think those relations are very important to bringing some kind of balance to relations in general, and some kind of change to the society with which we're interfacing.
PERIES: And Larry, your last comment on the baseball game at hand.
WILKERSON: Well, the baseball. The Cubans are--all the Latins are good at baseball, I think, but the Cubans are particularly good at baseball. And I'd love to see some kind of competition--frankly, Sharmini, I would love to see the World Series become the World Series. It never has been. It's just baseball inside the United States. Now, that's partly because we're one big country that plays baseball a lot. But as we see now, the Japanese have played it long enough to where they actually have members coming into our major leagues, and we have people playing with them. The Cubans should be the same way. I'd love to see a World Series that at least was regional, or maybe even global, and have teams from Japan, teams from Cuba, and teams from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere that would actually participate in such a series.
So I think this is another example of how sports and other cultural activities can bring societies closer together, and even ultimately help change societies that I said are more repressive, or less respectful of human rights.

At AIPAC, Hillary Vows to Uphold Israel's Military Dominance

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, also known as AIPAC. Without mentioning Donald Trump by name, she attacked his neutral stance on negotiating a settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. She also affirmed the U.S. and Israel's strong military alliance, and she vowed to reestablish sanctions on Iran if provoked. Let's take a look at what she said.

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Is the Russian Withdrawal a Message to Assad?

Russia has begun withdrawing its main forces from Syria after five months of air strikes targeting Syrian rebels and ISIS. This occurs at the same time as U.N.-sponsored peace talks resume in Geneva to strategize an end to the civil war, and to discuss electing a new Syrian government. Russia will still maintain its air base in Syria, as well as some military personnel. Joining us to discuss this is Patrick Cockburn. He's the Middle East correspondent for the Independent, and the author of The Rise of the Islamic State and the New Sunni Revolution.

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US-Canada Methane Reduction Agreement a Breakthrough in Unity Against Climate Change

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to Washington, DC this week was received with much fanfare in Washington. And upon landing, before any work actually began, President Obama and Justin Trudeau had a joint press conference. Here's what they had to say.

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Bernie vs. Hillary: Who Will Stop the Fracking?

Fracking, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, the process of drilling down through shale rock to extract oil or natural gas, it's an issue dividing the policies of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. At the recent Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan, Clinton seemed to be a bit long-winded on the issue compared to Bernie Sanders. Let's have a look.
Watch: The Real News Network's interview with Steve Horn. Full transcript below. 
HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I don't support it when any locality or any state is against it, number one. I don't support it when the release of methane or contamination of water is present. I don't support it, number three, unless we can require that anybody who fracks has to tell us exactly what chemicals they are using.
BERNIE SANDERS: My answer is a lot shorter. No, I do not support fracking.
PERIES: Some attribute Sanders' victory in Michigan on Tuesday, the state that is besieged by poisonous water in Flint, to that comment. And one may wonder how much the fracking issue had been contributing to people when they went to the polling station, as fracking is known to pollute groundwater and contribute to contaminated drinking water. A sensitive issue.With us to discuss the issue is Steve Horn. Steve is research fellow for DeSmog Blog, and a freelance investigative journalist whose work is featured in the Guardian, the Nation, and Truthout. Good to have you with us again, Steve.
STEVE HORN: Good to be on again. Thanks for having me.
PERIES: So, Steve, what do you make of Secretary Clinton's response to the question of fracking? And do you think it had something to do with her losing in Michigan, and Bernie Sanders winning?
HORN: Yeah. You know, first of all, fracking is an issue that has divided the state of Michigan. There hasn't really been commercial scale fracking in the state. I think an important context is that there's been a grassroots battle against fracking that's been ongoing for the past several years, including a ballot initiative that got tens of thousands of signatures to ban fracking in the state that was led by a grassroots group there. So fracking is definitely an issue that's on the mind of the people of Michigan. Of course, it's hard to go ahead and then say that's one of the contributing factors to the reason why Sanders ended up winning, but of course that is an issue that has rallied the grassroots, so of course it's something that a lot of people, tens of thousands of people in the state care about, and many of them probably voters who went out and [inaud.] a vote for Sanders. So that's first of all. Second of all is Clinton's equivocating on the issue in her answer to the question. Of course, a lot of this has to do, you know, the backdrop is that she has taken $4.5 million from the fossil fuel industry as of the latest data that came out that was released by Greenpeace USA, that is Super PAC money, and her campaign committee money, versus campaign committee money only from Bernie Sanders, he took $35,000. That could mean, most likely just means some money from employees of companies, because he does not have a Super PAC. So of course, that is the broader context.
The nuances of her answer is that--what is more telling is what she--there's telling things in what she said. There's also telling things in what she did not say. What she said is her list of these three things that need to happen for her to support fracking. She basically went ahead and said if these things did not happen, you know, these things most likely will not happen, so she's not very supportive of fracking, of course. One of them, it was the issue of chemical transparency. I think it's probably going to be the most interesting going forward. The industry has something called frack focus, which the Obama administration has been supportive of, that was an initiative that was supposedly more transparent than what existed before out of the [inaud.] loophole. Only that, I think the caveat being that it actually hasn't been any more transparent. It's mostly been a PR greenwashing exercise by the industry. So that's been the approach by states across the nation and the federal government. Hillary Clinton did not get into the details of what she means, by what she supports by chemical transparency. But under her State Department, of course, they were spreading fracking across the world under the global shale gas initiative. That's the context of where she was on this issue, you know, obviously up in the air on where she goes from here.
But also telling in her answer was how she focused only on the methane issue as one of the, you know, she says that there's methane leakage, she will not be supportive of fracking. That's almost impossible. There's been so many studies that show just huge amounts of methane spewing into the atmosphere across the supply chain of oil and gas for fracking and shale gas. But I think on top of that is the emerging issue of not only methane as a greenhouse gas, but the issue of carbon dioxide. There's a study that came out from the Environmental Integrity Project just released last week. That report basically came out and said, look, if you look at the entirety, look at the grave portion of, the cradle-to-grave life cycle of the petrochemical industry that's emerged with fracking, look at things like fertilizer plants, chemical plants, liquified natural gas facilities. All the stuff that comes after the fracking, you calculate the carbon dioxide numbers, you're looking at in the past five years 39--the equivalent of 39 coal-fired power plants being built, proposed, or already being built for the petrochemical industry. And you look at even 2015 alone it was proposed or [inaud.] built because things that were permitted. We're looking at 19 more coal-fired power plants' equivalent of that in carbon dioxide. So we're looking at methane being a greenhouse gas that's more potent than carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere. Then you look at carbon dioxide alone, we're looking at dozens of coal-fired power plants. Because of the, you know, the supply chain that has been opened up due to fracking.
So it's not just--Hillary Clinton's answer only focused on the fracking portion of it and not the entire supply chain. I think that Bernie Sanders' answer was much more simple, it was no, I do not support fracking. And with that comes, of course, without that fracking we cannot have this huge, emerging supply chain that's been opened up due to fracking.
PERIES: Steve, Clinton seems to be walking a very tight rope here, particularly given that she has accepted money from the oil and gas lobby and Super PACs contributing to her campaign. Yet she did talk about wanting to regulate everything related to fracking. What do you think she meant by that, and what is the current regulations in place that, from an administration that she's been a part of?
HORN: Yeah, that's a, you know, that's an interesting way to look at it. You know, of course all her answers were very vague, and what she says she supports. Right now it's currently, quote-unquote, “regulated”. That means that the federal government hardly does anything except for under the Obama administration there's been proposals for regulating methane, public lands under the Bureau of Land Management, and that's pretty much it in terms of the Obama administration. You look at what the status quo has been since the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and before, and that is giving all authority to the states. And of course, that's crucial. Because the states are all part of this broader state regulators, who are supposed, you know, supposed to be policing the oil and gas industry. They are all members of this really powerful body that's been in place in the United States since 1935. It's called the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, which was a compact signed between the states and Congress that's congressionally authorized. And so--but essentially it is a body of regulators that are in the pocket of the oil and gas industry. IOGCC, as it's called in shorthand, takes lots of money from the oil and gas industry, and that compact itself was funded from drilling operations in the states. So it's basically an organ of the oil and gas industry in terms of how it works. We will be doing a lot more reporting on this body. But that is the status quo right now. And then we call that regulation [to the] states. And of course as it plays out, it means very little regulation. Underfunded state, local regulations and lots of corruption in the state level. It remains to be seen if Clinton will challenge that. But that is something that has been in place in the United States [I would] say now for 80 years. [Crosstalk]
PERIES: Now, Clinton also talked about how fracking shouldn't take place in communities that don't want it. Now, both the Real News and DeSmog Blog has covered cases where this is not the case, and communities clearly don't want it yet it still exists. Tell us about some of those examples.
HORN: Yeah. Well, that's a two-pronged thing. Because one, there are lots of communities that don't want fracking, but it really depends on what the mechanism is for stopping it. Right now there is an onslaught by the industry to ban local bans. We saw that in Denton, Texas. We see these attacks ongoing right now in Colorado. She did not say I will go ahead and tell the industry they cannot ban local bans. So I don't know how much she would stick her neck out on the issue. I think that basically what she's saying is if that authority is in place she will be supportive. She's not going to exactly take the industry position. But she also did not say she will challenge the industry in doing this. Of course, this has been spearheaded, there are things like it not only on fracking but corporate issues that concern corporate America in general through using the American Legislative Exchange Council as a vehicle on other issues, too. So this is, this whole ban of local bans has become a trend. And it really, the details are very vague in terms of Clinton, if she would challenge that, if she would try to introduce legislation that would not allow industries to put forward legislation like this. Again, like everything else, her proposals are purposely very vague.

How Teach for America Is Covertly Privatizing Public Education

DeRay Mckesson might be a late entry into the Baltimore mayor's race, but his candidacy has brought both national attention and controversy to a field already crowded with nearly a dozen Democrats alone. A Black Lives Matter protester who gained fame and a massive social media following by walking away from a six-figure salary in 2014 to join the Ferguson uprising, Mckesson recently released a 26-page platform which outlined support for a $15 minimum wage, education development, youth development, and reforming the beleaguered Baltimore Police Department. At least on the surface, this sounds progressive. But critics say his involvement with Teach For America hints at another agenda. TFA is a hedge fund-backed nonprofit that gives top college graduates five weeks of training and places them in disinvested public schools around the country. TFA is known for rallying around its alumni, but there are others who paint a different picture. Among those is our next guest, T. Jameson Brewer. He's a Ph.D. candidate of educational policy studies and O'Leary fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He's also the co-editor of Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, published last year.
Watch: Interview with The Real News Network. Full transcript below.
NOOR: So, let's start off by--if you can just share a little bit of your own experience with Teach For America, what you've heard from some of your other colleagues that have been critical of it. And we have you on because recently there was an article written about DeRay, and it pointed out his connections with Teach For America, and it was pretty critical of those connections and what TFA has done around the country. And DeRay responded. He defended TFA. His response said TFA is working to get a quality, good quality education for students all across the United States, that he believes in strong public schools and he believes in teachers unions and collective bargaining. So you've had sort of a different experience. You've learned different things from working with and talking to other former TFA alumni. Can you fill us in?
BREWER: Yes. I'm a traditionally trained teacher, but I had the misfortune of graduating right as the recession started. And so after two years of looking for a job in the state of Georgia where I lived effectively having a hiring freeze across the board, I joined Teach For America out of desperation to find a job, and it was really during the first couple of days of being [in the] institute that I started to develop a critical lens on Teach For America, because it seemed to me, and others have talked about this as well, that Teach For America's approach to pedagogy is very one-size-fits-all. They never use the word recipe, but it's presented to incoming corps members, right, so these are folks who have had no experience or background in pedagogy or methods or child development, and necessarily this recipe for teaching is presented to them. And they're told to follow that. And if they follow that, 100 percent of their students will achieve 100 percent of the time, and you know, according to their academic impact model, their teaching-as-leadership rubric, you know, if students aren't achieving, and if they're not behaving in the classroom, well, Teach For America's figured it out. The person that is to blame is the corps member. And so some of my first critiques of the organization came from an insider's perspective about how damaging that narrow thinking about teaching and learning could be, not only for students, but of course for the corps members teaching them. And really, you know, Teach For America's message has shifted. It started as an organization that purportedly wanted to attend to a national teacher shortage, but especially in light of the economic recession and the tens of thousands of teachers being laid off, and Teach For America growing during those years, they've been forced to sort of shift their rhetoric to, well, you know, we don't really attend to teacher shortages, our teachers are better, and principals are preferring our candidates over traditionally certified teachers. What's troubling is that Teach For America, during the course of, as you pointed out, their five-week institute, they only get about 18 hours of student teaching. That's two and a half days of student teaching. And so for me I found it problematic for an organization to suggest that they start student teaching Monday morning and they're better than everyone else by Wednesday at lunchtime. That's disconcerting, it's problematic, it's a bit insulting. And others, of course, throughout the organization have decried not feeling prepared when they enter the classroom. And it's true that traditionally certified teachers struggle in their first year. But I think we can all imagine that when you have 18 hours or two and a half days of student teaching you're certainly set up to struggle quite a bit more.
NOOR: And so, you know, in TFA's defense, they say, well, we're taking the top, you know, achieving students from around the country, and these are people that might not have ever gotten into education, but they're committing to two years, and they have tons of support. There's other activities outside the classroom and throughout those two years which will help them become really effective teachers. How do you respond to that?
BREWER: So, I hear it a lot that Teach For America supporters will suggest that, you know, TFA provides all these sort of external support structures for corps members. In some ways they do, it tends to be a once-a-month professional development session.
But a lot of that narrative assumes that traditionally certified teachers who are not a part of Teach For America don't have those mechanisms in place. In fact, every school district that I've ever been involved with, either as a student teacher or as a teacher, they've had mentor teachers that have been in my classroom more often than TFA. And so it's a misleading sort of thing to say, that Teach For America provides all this extra support for teachers when in fact they don't have a monopoly on doing that.
NOOR: And talk a little bit about the impact of that two-year commitment, because many studies--and for example, my own personal experience of being an educator for about five years working in different classrooms in New York City, you know, two years is for many people, you're just kind of figuring out what you're doing, right. So what kind of impact does that have, not only on teachers themselves but on students and communities where you have that high turnover? There is a two-year commitment, and many, I guess the majority of TFA, they move on to other jobs. And they might be in the educational field, but they move on outside of the classroom.
BREWER: Yeah, you know, study after study has confirmed that what really matters most as far as student academic outcomes, right, so graduation rates and test scores, and of course we can have a conversation about how myopic test scores are. They're not a really good measurement for actual learning. Actually, most of it is influenced by outside of school factors. And so it's a little disconcerting that Teach For America puts so much focus on fixing bad teachers and fixing bad schools when that's not what the research holds up.
But it does show within the research literature that the inside of school factors that matter the most, certainly good teachers are, and if there's a revolving door of teachers that that's exceeding detrimental to students, right, because there's no investment in the community. But it also, it really undermines the notion of teaching as a profession. It conceptualizes teaching as a technocratic skill, and something of volunteer service. And I like to point out, as is often the case that I get pushed back on my critique, that I taught for two years and I left the classroom. Although I do still teach, I teach pre-service teachers here at the University of Illinois. And so I've not left the classroom, though I have left the K-12 classroom. The problem is that the reason that a lot of teachers, and good teachers, and even if that might include a few TFA teachers, are leaving the classrooms because of the onslaught of the other education reforms that Teach For America supports. Right, so high-stakes testing, merit pay, pedagogical approaches that teach to the test. The advent of charter schools and vouchers. And so all these things that are making teaching less of a profession, stripping teachers' autonomy away. These are the reasons that people are abandoning the K-12 classrooms, it's why I left. But of course, in Teach For America's support of those policies it opens the door for a need for more Teach For America. So it's a reaffirming and self-fulfilling prophecy in a lot of ways.
NOOR: And so I also wanted to point out that it does cost a lot less money to have a Teach For America graduate for two years versus a career-long teacher, right. Because you're talking about a 25-year career. That salary is going to go up. You're going to have a pension, you have other benefits to pay out. So for a lot of cash-strapped school districts, you know, they love TFA, because it's going to help them pack the classroom. You know, we are--there is a teacher shortage in a lot of places like Baltimore. It's not a very attractive place for a lot of people to work, because of all the social issues that exist, the higher levels of poverty and crime that exist in Baltimore.
BREWER: Yeah. Some of the recent work that I've been doing on Teach For America, and in fact a few of my colleagues and I who are also critical of Teach For America, we just published a study two weeks ago looking at this question.
So it's actually, in most cases if you have the prospect of filling a single teaching position with either a Teach For America corps member or equally experienced, or rather inexperienced, non-TFA teacher, it's actually more expensive to fill that position with Teach For America on the front end, because TFA requires non-refundable finder's fees, right, that range anywhere between $2,000-5,000 per corps member per year. And even if the corps member quits, the district is still obligated to pay the rest of that finder's fee to Teach For America. So on the front end it is actually more expensive to hire a Teach For America corps member, but over the long run if you're able to reserve those positions to be filled by Teach For America, in about, in some of the districts that we looked at, in about the eighth or ninth year there's a shift where Teach For America, even with the finder's fees, becomes a cheaper option because, of course, you're constantly resetting the experience level closer to zero. In large districts like New Orleans, for example, where educational reformers totally wiped out the teacher labor force, of course there have been lawsuits about that, there are massive savings for using Teach For America, because not only did they cut a significant portion of the teaching force, but they were able to shift the experience level of teachers closer to zero, and in the process saving tons of money, obviously ignoring what we understand about effective teaching, that it takes many, many years to become an effective teacher.
NOOR: And what impact does this have on teachers unions? It is a different, it is a different situation in places like Maryland, where all teachers are unionized. But in other, in other cities, other large cities, charter schools, for example, are not unionized, and TFA might not be unionized. What does this higher turnaround have on unionism in the teaching profession overall?
BREWER: Sure. I think, unfortunately, the United States is having a union problem. Enrolment in unions across the board has been steadily declining for the last few decades, and of course there are neoliberal politics we can thank for that.
But it's true that there are areas where Teach For America corps members, as part of their affiliation with the local public district, or as part of their affiliation with charters, as you pointed out in Maryland, that they're required to have membership in a union. Of course, there are areas where membership is voluntary. And there are some conversations about whether Teach For America joins unions, or whether they don't. But what we see is a lot of high-profile TFA alums who are leaving the classroom after two years, right, they've developed a manufactured expertise, if you will, and they take that into the policy arena where they advocate for a very particular type of, brand of education reform. Namely, to your point, one of them being trying to bust up teachers' unions. Right, so I'm thinking about Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst organization, right, that helped at least fund in some ways the Vergara decision in California that not only is looking at taking away teacher tenure, but really trying to undermine teachers unions. And again, I think the concept, or the idea that you could student teach for two and a half days and then become the teacher of record, and that certainly challenges and undermines notions of professionalism, and we would never allow doctors to operate on anybody with two and a half days of training, or lawyers to argue a court case with two and a half days. And so it's problematic on the front end. But when you look at the alumni who are going into policy positions and they're advocating for these types of anti-union reforms, it's also troubling thinking about teaching as a profession at large.
NOOR: And in your piece in the Washington Post you had published recently, you note that more than 70 alums of TFA currently hold public office. Several more work in the U.S. Department of Education and as congressional advisors. Alumni run the school districts in New York--Newark, sorry, Atlanta, and New Orleans. And you also mentioned Michelle Rhee, who was the former schools chancellor in DC, who sort of fell from grace for her aggressive tactics of firing principals and teachers on camera, which was later televised.
BREWER: And a cheating scandal.
NOOR: Yeah, and a massive cheating scandal. So what--do we know what the impact of TFA, other TFA alums, who have gone into these, you know, more--have gone into higher positions of power in the education world, what impact have they had?
BREWER: Yeah, so it's--it's a glaring gap in the evidence. It's something that needs to be researched more. There was a study that was produced two years ago. It also came out in Educational Policy Analysis Archives. Jacobsen and Linkow produced a piece that looked at the messaging, the campaign messaging, of Teach For America alums who were running for local school board, and compared those to their competitors and other school board members, their messaging, and found that the Teach For America alums were exceedingly more likely to align their rhetoric and public messaging to be, with Teach For America, to be with corporate education reform.
And so that's really some of the first empirical evidence we have. It's certainly an area that needs to be researched more. But I think anecdotally we can see that a lot of the high-profile alums, right, John White in Louisiana, Michelle Rhee, as we noted, right, they're advocating for a very specific type of marketization and privatization of education, right. Expanding Teach For America, which is the privatization of teacher education, expanding charter schools and school vouchers, which is privatization a lot of different ways. And so anecdotally we have lots of evidence of that happening.
NOOR: Now, sort of, I wanted to end on this note, which I think is important. Does Teach For America itself, the policies it pushes and advances, do they lead to privatization? Or is it just a byproduct, is increased privatization a byproduct of the work they are doing? In other words, are they explicitly trying to privatize public education?
BREWER: I think that it's difficult to say that they're doing it explicitly. And I think that's--Teach For America's smart, they understand how they're incorporated, right. They can't, they're nonprofit, they can't take policy positions overtly or explicitly. But they certainly do implicitly in a lot of ways. A few of--I'll give you a few examples. When No Child Left Behind said that every teacher would have--or excuse me, every student would have to have a highly-qualified teacher, it became problematic for Teach For America because, of course, the definition of highly-qualified didn't include someone who was emergency license or alternatively certified, or in the process of getting certification, meaning that they don't have a full credential or state license to teach. In 2010, the only amendment to No Child Left Behind at that date was to tweak the language to include teachers that were currently in training as highly-qualified. Of course, there's some anecdotal evidence of Teach For America pushing for that, of course, through their alumni base and some of their connections on the Hill to get that amendment passed. It was re-authorized during the debt deal that reopened the federal government in 2013. And so they've had influence in a lot of covert ways. But I think that as an organization that has 400--and I'm looking at it here, in 2013, $437 million in net assets, so approaching half a billion dollars in net assets, and this was two years ago, who has received, continues to receive money from the federal government, right. So taxpayers like you and myself, their conceptualization of teaching is that somebody with two and a half days of student teaching can be or should be a teacher of record. And they, of course, they try to suggest now that they're better teachers than folks who've spent four, five, six years training to become a teacher and getting a license before they do that. And so the organization's rhetoric surrounding teachers and teacher training I think lends itself to privatization. And of course, the KIP founders, the Knowledge Is Power program, right, the nation's largest charter network, being founded by TFA alums, they've gone on record saying that they rely on Teach For America as a fresh stream, or as a never ending stream of fresh blood, because they overwork their teachers so hard that it's good to have just a two-year commitment. And so there are a lot of covert ways that TFA is seeking to privatize all of education.

Uncovering America's Secret Prisons

Little Guantanamos. This is the phrase that some are using to describe prisons known as communications management units, CMUs, highly secretive and dubious of legality. And they're right here in the United States. And an estimated 70 people might be held there. CMUs, largely unknown to the general public and media, are rarely granted access. Well, one journalist was recently able to get inside one of them in Marion, Illinois. And he joins us now to share what he saw. Will Potter is an investigative journalist and TED senior fellow, and author of the book Green Is The New Red: An Insider's Account of Social Movements under Siege.
Watch: Interview with The Real News Network. Full transcript below:
PERIES: So Will, I guess on everyone's minds is how did you manage to get inside the prison? And of course, once you got inside, what did you see?
POTTER: Well, journalists are not allowed in CMUs. But I had been writing about one prisoner in particular for quite some time. From the day of his arrest I'd followed him all the way through the legal process, up through his conviction. And so I was able to able to visit Daniel McGowan, who's an environmentalist who is in the CMU, as a friend. And I was quite surprised by that, even, because I'd uncovered evidence that the counterterrorism unit had been monitoring my work and speeches about CMUs and writing about CMUs that I had done. But I quickly found out how that happened. And it's because Daniel was told that if I asked any questions or if I reported about our visit that he would be punished for my work. And when I arrived at the prison I was reminded of the fact that I was not allowed to ask him any questions. Nevertheless, it was an important insight into how CMUs operate, and an opportunity to see this from a perspective that other journalists have not been able to.
PERIES: And what does one have to do to be relegated to one of these prisons? How is the process determined?
POTTER: That's exactly the problem, is that we don't know. Even considering lawsuits that are pending right now, we still don't have clear answers to that question. All the prisoners I've talked to were transferred to the CMU without any warning. They were just notified in the middle of the night or early morning, and then sent off to this secretive unit without explanation. When they asked for some opportunity to appeal their designation, or some explanation for what has happened and why they're there, they were either ignored or answered in very simplistic terms, and not really elaborated. For some of them it was clearly because of their political beliefs. We found out through legal proceedings and open records requests that the government sent some people to CMUs because of their, quote, anti-government and anti-corporate views. For other prisoners I think it is quite clearly because of their race and religion. The majority of prisoners in CMUs are Muslim, and many of them have connections to very dubious terrorism prosecutions that involve FBI informants and potential entrapment, even. So that's really the breakdown of these prison units right now.
PERIES: And the communications management units, why are they called that?
POTTER: I think that's a really good point. As a writer and someone who is very careful about language, I admire the creativity and how benign that title is, of communications management unit. It sounds very straightforward. And it almost gives the perception that other prisoners do not have their communications managed. That's simply not the case, though. Every communication with every prisoner in a federal prison is monitored. It's received by prison officials. The letters are reviewed. Phone calls can be reviewed. All visitation is monitored. The question then is why are some prisoners singled out for much harsher treatment? And like I said, we don't have a good answer to that. But we've begun to see some of the government's rationale. And that really boils down to their political beliefs.
PERIES: And the other curious term behind all of this is the term 'inspirational significance'. What does that mean, and how are prisoners classified as such?
POTTER: So as I was saying, the CMUs were opened secretly, and in many people's opinion, illegally. They didn't go through any administrative oversight. And only until years later did we start seeing some language describing what these prison units are supposed to do. And the government described them as facilities for prisoners with, quote, inspirational significance. And I think that's a very, again, very benign and quite brilliant way of describing what I think in any other environment would be considered political prisons for political prisoners. People are sent to the CMU because of their race and their religion and their political beliefs. In Daniel McGowan's case, for instance, I think he clearly has inspirational significance in relation to the social movements that he advocates for on environmental issues, on conservation, on climate change and things like that. And all of this, his writings about this while imprisoned, ended up in counterterrorism unit files and were used as evidence of why he should be imprisoned in a CMU.
PERIES: And tell us a little bit more about his case. How did he end up in this classified prison?
POTTER: So Daniel McGowan, like all the other prisoners in CMUs, has been convicted of crimes. In his case he was convicted of participating in two arsons in the name of the Earth Liberation Front, which is a clandestine group which has used property destruction in the name of defending the environment. But like all the other prisoners in the CMUs, or I should say almost all the prisoners, he had no disciplinary violations, and he had no communications violations. He was previously at a low-security prison. In other words, he didn't have anything on his record prior to going to prison or after being incarcerated that would reflect this need for heightened security measures, which I think makes it even more clear of being singled out because of his political beliefs.
PERIES: And how did you manage to convince the prison authorities to allow you as a friend into the prison if he's under such surveillance, as far as his communications is concerned?
POTTER: I was--it didn't take any convincing on my part. I mean, I just submitted my request, just as any visitor would. It didn't take any convincing on Daniel's part, either, which is quite surprising. It was approved, really, without any fanfare until, like I said, McGowan was told that if I wrote anything about our visit he would be punished. And then when I arrived I was told they knew all about my work, they knew about interviews on Democracy Now! and in places like that, and that if I asked him any questions the visit would be immediately terminated.
PERIES: And how many of these kinds of prisons are there, and also answer whether--why these are in Indiana and Illinois.
POTTER: There are two CMUs that we know about. One is in Marion, Illinois and the other is in Terre Haute, Indiana. They both exist within larger federal prisons. So they are really prisons within prisons. They were opened, as I was saying before, without any oversight or accountability. There are similar facilities, such as in Carswell, the prison in Texas for women, but that are not being called communications management unit but seem to restrict prisoners in similar ways. And really, the story is still emerging on that, of how--what the government's plans are. If there will be additional CMUs. There's a move to make these facilities permanent now rather than experimental. And we don't know how that's going to play out.
PERIES: And the restrictive nature for the media is something that's written, or did you, did anyone tell you as a journalist you're not allowed to enter this prison? And if so, why?
POTTER: Yeah. It's communicated in several ways. It's through some of the procedural moves that I mentioned about going through the official process now to make these facilities permanent. It's also been communicated and exposed through a lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is taking on the case of Daniel McGowan and others, and advocating for prisoners within the CMU. And as part of that they've obtained, must be thousands of pages of documents through the discovery process, which I was able to use in my presentation with TED to an extent as well. And also through direct communication to me, when I was there at the facility.
PERIES: Right. And you say many of these prisoners are Muslim. Is there any reason to believe that any of these prisoners, Muslim or otherwise, are any security threat to us in the U.S.?
POTTER: No, not at all. I mean, I think that really speaks to the discriminatory nature of these prison units, is that spectre and that fear, that outright racist stereotyping, is being used to create this fear of this community that frankly doesn't exist. The Muslim community that is imprisoned in the CMUs are not the Zacarias Moussaouis of the world. They're not the 9/11 hijackers, they're not anything like that. They're people like [Yasin Arif] who is an imam from upstate New York who was asked to bear witness to a loan, and it turned out one of the people that he was, that was involved in that loan, was an undercover FBI agent who was trying to entrap someone else in a fake attack. And Arif didn't know anything about it. So it was really a manufactured plot that Arif found himself wrapped up in, and as a result of that ended up eventually in the CMU. Those are the types of cases that we're talking about here.

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