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.

Florida's Unemployment Website Disaster: Worse Than Healthcare.gov?

| Tue Jan. 14, 2014 9:42 AM PST
Looking for Work

Republicans have spent the past few months reveling in the dysfunction of Healthcare.gov, the federal online health insurance exchange. And they've bashed the Obama administration for incompetence over the smallest of technological glitches that accompanied the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. But Republicans aren't exactly immune from the plague of technology problems when they're in charge of things. Take the case of Florida, where Republican state legislators, with the support of a Republican governor, decided in 2011 that everyone seeking unemployment benefits would have to apply online.

The state spent $63 million trying to create a website that would allow the unemployed to access benefits, awarding a contract to Deloitte, which, like the Healthcare.gov contractor, had a better record of lobbying for contracts than actually performing them. (Massachusetts and California have both launched investigations into similar performance problems in their states.) The site's October roll-out was disastrous—in many ways, a bigger debacle  than the Obamacare rollout, because the people trying to apply for benefits were in desperate need of the $275 a week in benefits to pay the rent and keep the heat on. Unemployed people jammed state offices and have flooded Republican Gov. Rick Scott's office with thousands of angry complaints. Legal aid lawyers have seen a rash of clients facing evictions and car repossessions. Last week, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)*called for a federal investigation into the website problems, which still aren't fixed.

Florida's unemployment system was already stingy, offering fewer weeks of benefits than federal law allows. The state already had the nation's lowest percentage of unemployed workers applying for benefits, thanks in part to various obstacles to applying, like a requirement for applicants to take a math test—obstacles that the US Department of Labor found in April constituted major civil rights violations. But that dismal record got even worse in November, when the percentage of unemployed people applying for benefits dropped to 13.4 percent, from 15.5. (Nationally, that figure is 41 percent.)

Scott, formerly a tea party darling up for reelection this year and a big supporter of the restrictions on unemployment benefits, responded to the website crisis publicly this week by saying, "Oh gosh, we work on it every day. And try to improve it every day." Meanwhile, the National Employment Law Center estimates that jobless workers have been denied $20 million worth of unemployment benefits since the website rollout.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Nelson is running for governor of Florida. He is not currently a candidate for that office.

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Charts: Catholic Hospitals Don't Do Much for the Poor

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 1:48 PM PST

Catholic hospitals have been on a merger spree over the last few years, as Mother Jones reported earlier this year. Ever-expanding swaths of the country are now served only by a Catholic hospital, where patients have no choice but to receive care dictated by Catholic bishops whose religious edicts don't always align with what's best for a patient. Catholic hospitals generally follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, which restrict abortion even in cases where a fetus isn't viable, for instance, a practice that has resulted in hospitals denying proper care for women suffering from miscarriages. The ACLU recently filed suit against the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of a Michigan woman who was suffering a second-trimester miscarriage and was sent home twice by a Catholic hospital, developing a serious infection because the hospital refused to even talk to her about the possibility of an abortion. Her baby died two hours after she miscarried.

Despite this heavy mixing of theology and health care, Catholic hospitals in 2011 received $27 billion—nearly half of their revenues—from public sources, according to a new report put out today by the American Civil Liberties Union and MergerWatch, a reproductive rights advocacy group. And that figure doesn't even include other tax subsidies the hospitals receive thanks to their nonprofit status.

The hospitals have long justified their tax status and restrictions on care by pointing to their religious mission of serving the poor and their delivery of charitable care. But the new ACLU/MergerWatch report suggests, and the chart below illustrates, Pope Francis might be on to something when he's said that the church needs to shift its priorities to focus less on abortion and more on the poor. MergerWatch data show that Catholic hospitals, where executives often earn multimillion-dollar salaries, aren't doing any better providing charity care than other religious non-profit hospitals that don't restrict care. They're barely any better than ordinary secular nonprofits.

ACLU/MergerWatch

The charitable care figures also don't give a complete picture of how well Catholic hospitals serve the poor and uninsured because it doesn't include patients who are covered by Medicaid, the government health care plan for the low-income and disabled. As it turns out, Catholic hospitals, which in 2011 had more than $200 billion in gross patient revenue, had the lowest percentage of revenue from Medicaid of any type of hospital. Even for-profit hospitals earned more revenue from Medicaid than Catholic hospitals.

ACLU/MergerWatch

All of these numbers suggest that as Catholic hospitals have merged and expanded into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, they've moved far beyond their religious mission and become like any other large corporation. Given those trends, and the hospitals' reliance on public funding, it's hard to see how they can continue to justify their mixing of Catholic doctrine with health care, especially when it disproportionately violates standards of care for women.

The ACLU/MergerWatch report calls on the US Department of Health and Human Services to crack down on Catholic hospitals and to insist that they follow federal law requiring all hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding to provide emergency treatment to any patient, even if that care requires an emergency abortion. Other advocacy groups have made similar requests in the past few years, but HHS thus far has refused to pick a fight with the Catholic Church, which has turned into one of the Obama administration's biggest foes thanks to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The church has proven to be a powerful enemy—a wealthy special interest in a holy war—and even the new Pope seems unlikely to persuade it to give up this particular fight.

North Carolina Home Schools to Get Public School Money

| Tue Dec. 17, 2013 4:00 AM PST
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."

Scholars Protest Charles Koch's Donation to Catholic University

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 10:02 AM PST
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."

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