Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

North Carolina Home Schools to Get Public School Money

| Tue Dec. 17, 2013 7:00 AM EST
The Paramount Christian Academy in Thomasville, North Carolina.

In July, the increasingly right-wing legislature in North Carolina passed a bill to divert $10 million from the public school budget to create vouchers that would give low-income students up to $4,200 a year to pay for private school tuition. Such vouchers are a popular conservative proposal for "reforming" failing public schools.

North Carolina's vouchers, which will become available in 2014, allow public money to go to unregulated private schools that are not required to meet any educational or teacher preparation standards. In addition, thanks to the way the law was written, the money will be available to "home schools"—literally schools set up in someone's house. Homeschooling traditionally has been done by parents. But the state recently changed its home schooling law to allow people who aren't parents or legal guardians educate kids in a group setting. The only requirement for such schools is that the teacher have a high school diploma, that the school keep immunization and attendance records on its students, and that it give kids a national standardized test every year.

NC Policy Watch, a project of the nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center, went out and found some interesting "home schools" that may be eligible for taxpayer funding next year. The Paramount Christian Academy has one teacher who teaches her granddaughter, a neighbor's kid, and one special-needs student. It uses textbooks from Bob Jones University and A Beka Book, whose offerings we've chronicled here at Mother Jones.

As Deanna Pan explained last year, such instructional materials teach Bible-based "facts"—such as the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. The materials also suggest that the Ku Klux Klan "tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross" and that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, for instance. Gay people are singled out for special scorn in one Bob Jones teachers' guide, which says that they "have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists." And math haters—these books are for you. The company writes on its website:

Unlike the 'modern math' theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute…A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory.

These sorts of materials are now allowed in Louisiana's voucher program as well, but North Carolina seems unique in diverting taxpayer dollars both to schools that teach wacky Christian curricula and to basically anyone who claims to be a "home school." The state only has a single employee dedicated to overseeing its existing 700 private schools, which get visited on average once every three years, according to NC Policy Watch, making the state's ability to regulate home schools highly questionable. That's not the sort of data point that supports the idea that vouchers will help improve school performance of low-income kids, especially when you consider the experience of other states.

In the District of Columbia, the Washington Post found that vouchers were going to unaccredited schools run by the Nation of Islam and one organized around "Suggestopedia," a learning philosophy developed by a Bulgarian psychotherapist that emphasizes stretching and meditation. Not surprisingly, a US Department of Education study found no evidence that vouchers improved students' test scores. In Milwaukee, a city that pioneered the voucher program, voucher students perform far worse than regular public school students in both math and reading, and the voucher schools have been a hotbed of criminal activity. One school founder used his voucher money to buy himself some nicer rides—two new Mercedes Benz cars—while inappropriately cashing thousands of dollars worth of checks written out to families that didn't actually attend the school. Florida voucher schools have been plagued with similar problems of fraud.

But North Carolina seems en route to set a new low for voucher programs by allowing even more dubious "home schools" to receive tax payer funding. That prospect seems to trouble even some of the voucher law's ardent supporters. Rep. John Hardiser (R) told NC Policy Watch, "I think it’s great if these [private] schools are governed the right way. But I don’t think anyone should be able to start a home school, call it a private school and be able to receive Opportunity Scholarships…most of us want these schools to be held accountable."

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Scholars Protest Charles Koch's Donation to Catholic University

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 1:02 PM EST
Charles Koch

Last month, the Charles Koch Foundation pledged to donate $1 million to the new business school at Catholic University of America in DC to contribute to its effort to advance the study of "principled entrepreneurship." Now some of the school's staff and other scholars at other Catholic universities around the country are crying foul. They're asking Catholic University to reject the donation because the Koch foundation and its funder have long pursued a conservative political agenda that's at odds with Catholic social teaching, especially as recently emphasized by the new Pope. In a letter to school's leadership delivered on Monday, they write that accepting the contribution may "send a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers' anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops."

Indeed, Catholic University is not just any Catholic school. It was created by US bishops and they sit on its board. Meanwhile, the Charles Koch Foundation is funded by the chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, the oil and gas conglomerate, and one half of the Koch brothers political duo. The Kochs (who aren't Catholic) have spent tens of millions of dollars over the past four decades pushing a free-market agenda that has included opposing the minimum wage and a host of environmental regulations.

Between 2007 and 2011, Koch-related foundations donated more than $30 million to 221 colleges and universities in the US. Charles Koch's donations to academic institutions have been controversial in the past. In 2011, his foundation sparked a minor controversy in Florida when it pledged $1.5 million to fund teaching positions in Florida State University's economics department. The donation enabled the foundation to have a say in hiring decisions for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise"; the foundation also wanted the school to start a new class on "Market Ethics: The Vices, Virtues, and Values of Capitalism," in which books by libertarian icon Ayn Rand would have been required reading. 

The academics write that "as Catholic bishops affirm the rights of workers to collectively bargain and organize, the Koch brothers give generously to elected leaders like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin who strip public employee unions of their rights to bargain." And the they quote a pastoral letter from the bishops that states emphatically that the church "fully supports the rights of workers to form unions and other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions… No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself." (Koch Industries did not respond to a request for comment. We will update the post if they do.)

The scholars also knock the Kochs for fighting the expansion of Medicaid in many states through their advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, another position that puts the brothers at odds with Catholic social teaching. (The church supports the expansion.) To make their case, Catholic University faculty and others who signed on to the letter are invoking "Time Man of the Year" Pope Francis. "While the Koch brothers lobby for sweeping deregulation of industries and markets," they write, "Pope Francis has criticized trickle-down economic theories, and insists on the need for stronger oversight of global financial markets to protect workers from what he calls 'the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.'"

The letter-signers aren't the only ones who are unhappy about Catholic University's decision to take Koch money. Faithful America, a progressive Christian group, launched a petition last month urging the university to reject the donation. So far, more than 28,000 people have signed it. "The Koch brothers bankroll a political movement that is working to undermine much of what the Catholic social tradition has stood for over the past century," said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. "It's reasonable to ask why a business school at a Catholic university would want to even risk giving the impression that it endorses a libertarian view of economics. The faith in unfettered markets and anti-government zealotry that has become a theology for many on the right is simply incompatible with Catholic identity."

The bishops who sit on Catholic University's board have increasingly moved away from the church's focus on social justice and aligned with more conservative political elements. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has pulled back funding for anti-poverty groups that have been caught working in coalitions that included gay-rights advocates, for instance, and it's cracked down on nuns who supported President Obama's health care reform initiative. Catholic University would never take a donation from Planned Parenthood or a foundation that promoted abortion rights, but it doesn't see a problem with taking Koch money.

The university issued a statement defending the donation and accusing Faith in Public Life, which helped coordinate the letter campaign, of an "unfortunate effort to manufacture controversy and score political points at the expense of The Catholic University of America." The school says the Koch foundation will have no role in hiring or course material, and that "the aim of the Charles Koch Foundation grant—to support research into principled entrepreneurship—is fully consonant with Catholic social teaching." The university says the grant has not inspired any opposition on campus and notes that Koch donations to universities are so widespread and uncontroversial that some of the academic signers of the protest letter seem unaware that their own institutions already take Koch money (including Notre Dame, Villanova, and Holy Cross). To that end, the university declares that it "has no intention of revisiting its decision to accept the grant from the Charles Koch Foundation."

Report: Most Tax-Based College Aid Goes to the Least Needy Families

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 7:00 AM EST

The federal government helps to make college affordable in a number of ways, from low-interest student loans to grants for low-income students. It also offers a host of lesser known subsidies for higher education through the tax code, by way of such things as 529 tax-free college savings plans and exemptions for loan interest and college expenses—expenditures that don't show up as a budget line item the same way Pell Grants do. A new report from the Consortium of Higher Education Tax Reform suggests these tax credits aren't doing much to increase the number of low-income families who send kids to college. Instead, they're subsidies to the 20 percent of American households making more than $100,000 a year—people who would send their kids to college even without a 529 plan.

The nation spends $34 billion annually on Pell Grants, which allow lower-income kids to go to college and leave without owing major debt. Meanwhile, the US spends $35 billion on higher education tax breaks, most of which go to people who need them the least. Tax credits in general are poorly targeted at those most in need, but some are worse than others. Take the Exemption for Dependent Students, which allows families to reduce their taxable income by up to $3,900 if they have a dependent student between the ages of 19 and 23. More than half of all these exemptions go to people making over $100,000 a year. Also regressive: the deduction for tuition and fees, half of which goes every year to families making over $100,000. The median income of a family with a 529 college savings plan is $120,000.

One reason tax credits don't benefit lower-income families as much as they should is the fact that they aren't refundable, so the money generally isn't available to families when the college bills are due, only when they file their taxes. The consortium also points out that federal tax breaks are still available to colleges and universities that are doing a poor job of enrolling and graduating low-income students, noting that more than 100 institutions getting federal tax breaks have graduation rates under 20 percent—a serious problem that can leave low-income kids both saddled with college debt and without a degree that might help them earn enough to repay it.

Research shows that financial aid can make a huge difference in whether a low-income kid decides to go to college. It has a miniscule impact on the college attendance rate of upper class kids, who are seven times more likely than low-income students to complete a bachelor's degree by the age of 24. The consortium recommends some big cuts in higher ed tax breaks for the affluent and a shift in focus to directing aid to where it can do the most good. Among its proposals: ending taxation of Pell Grants; allowing people with drug convictions to access the American Opportunity Tax Credit, one of the few refundable higher ed tax credits; and imposing income limits on college savings plans. All of these things seem reasonable and something both parties ought to be able to get behind, but it's hard to see middle-class families giving up all this aid without a huge fight.

The Latest Legal Attack Against Obamacare

| Tue Dec. 3, 2013 7:55 AM EST

Today, the US District Court for the District of Columbia* will hear arguments in one of the last lingering legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. The suit, Halbig v. Sebelius, argues that a single phrase in the law creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through and nullify the whole thing.

The argument goes something like this: When Congress wrote the ACA, it said that premium subsidies would be available for certain qualifying citizens who were "enrolled through an Exchange established by the State." (Emphasis added.) The law doesn't say that those subsidies are available to people in the 34 states that declined to set up exchanges, where residents must utilize the now-infamously buggy Healthcare.gov, the federal exchange.

That's where Obamacare opponents see a fatal flaw in the law. The plaintiffs in Halbig claim that they won't be eligible for tax credits because their states didn't start an exchange, so they won't be able to afford insurance. As a result, they argue that they'll be subject to the fine for not buying insurance, or to avoid the fine, they'll have to pay a lot for insurance they don't want. They want the court to block the IRS from implementing the law.

The complaint is pretty convoluted, and it's clearly a political attack. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses challenging the legality of the individual mandate, an argument rejected by the Supreme Court. The other plaintiffs are also conservative operatives, including the lead plaintiff, Jacqueline Halbig, who was a senior policy adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush. (She's also been the source of a host of conservative rhetoric about "baby death panels" in the ACA.) The intellectual force behind the suit,* Michael Cannon, is a health care expert at the libertarian Cato Institute who has spent the last few years urging states to refuse to set up insurance exchanges as a means to sabotage Obamacare.

The Obama administration argues that the language Halbig's case is premised on is merely a drafting error common in legislation and routinely reconciled after passage. (Indeed, if Congress were functioning normally, such copy mistake would have been corrected by now, but given the level of polarization in that body, it's been impossible to make such fixes that were once routine.) An amicus brief in the case filed by Families USA, a nonprofit health care advocacy group helping the administration combat some of the bad PR surrounding Obamacare, argues that the plaintiffs are disregarding the vast body of evidence showing that Congress intended for all low-income Americans to be eligible for tax subsidies, regardless of which exchange they used to purchase insurance. 

Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, has said that Congress essentially fixed the drafting error in another piece of legislation requiring the federal exchange to report information to the IRS and to promulgate regulations around Obamacare. The Congressional Budget Office has also treated the law as if the subsidies are available on the federal exchange.

So far, though, the lawsuit has survived. US District Court Judge Paul Friedman, a Clinton appointee, declined to dismiss the suit, though he did refuse the plaintiffs' request for an emergency injunction to prevent the IRS from implementing the law. Friedman will hear summary judgment arguments in the case this afternoon.*

The case seems destined for the Supreme Court, where a conservative majority is already hostile to Obamacare. The Roberts court has also shown little interest in considering congressional intent when interpreting the law. (See its history on the Voting Rights Act.) John Roberts has proven to be something of a literalist when it serves his interests. That record alone ought to give the administration and health care reformers pause. If Halbig et al. prevail in the case, Mother Jones' Kevin Drum has suggested that premium subsidies could end up available only to people in the 16 mostly blue states that have chosen to run their own exchanges, while the rest of the country (all the red parts) would keep paying taxes to underwrite those subsidies. But Halbig and her backers are clearly hoping that a decision in their favor will kill Obamacare completely.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that an appeal of a trial court decision in the case is being heard in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday. It also misidentified Michael Cannon as a lawyer. He has a master's degree in law and economics but not a Juris Doctor. The story has since been fixed.

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