On Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan named eighteen states and the District of Columbia as finalists in the second round of Race to the Top, an education reform competition with $3.4 billion still up for grabs. But as states continue overhauling their public schools in hopes of winning some desperately needed cash, President Obama's other major education reform initiative is stalling in Congress.

Funded by the 2009 economic stimulus and kicked off early this year, Race to the Top has led states to evaluate teachers based on student achievement, loosen statewide limits on public charter school growth, and adopt national curriculum standards. In years past, when billion-dollar carrots were not being dangled before states with massive education budget gaps, these reforms would have taken years of squabbling to enact. Duncan described the large volume of state-level reform as a "quiet revolution."

The finalists are Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Duncan will name the competition's 10 to 15 winners in September, though Race to the Top's first round yielded only two winners among 16 finalists.

Democrats are bleeding support from young voters who helped propel President Obama into office in 2008. In a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, voters aged 18 to 34 said they would choose a generic Republican over President Obama, 37 percent to 34 percent, were the 2012 election held today. By contrast, voters aged 35 to 54 still favored Obama by a margin of 40 to 36 percent.

Obama's approval rating among young voters—as with most other sectors of the population—has been dropping steadily since the beginning of his presidency. "Among voters in their twenties, Obama’s approval rating was 73 percent shortly after his January 2009 inauguration. A year later, in February 2010, that number slipped to 57 percent," writes Sam Jacobs in The Daily Beast. Jacobs theorizes that the troubled economy has hit young workers especially hard, fueling their dissatisfaction with the president. The jobless rate among young workers aged 16 to 24, for instance, has hit a record high: though they make up only 13 percent of the labor force, this age group represented a quarter of the unemployed in April. And the grim economic outlook seems to have proven particularly disillusioning to new entrants into the labor force.

Democrats had been planning to use Obama's personal appeal to persuade 2008 supporters of the president to turn out for this year's midterm elections, reaching out to voters through groups like Organizing for America, which mobilized Obama's grassroots army. Obama is still more popular than the Democrats or Congress, whose approval ratings are abysmally low. But it will be that much harder for the Dems to rev up youthful enthusiasm for "the president's allies" come November.

Campaign finance reform collapsed in the Senate yesterday after Democrats failed to muster a single Republican vote for the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would have limited corporate spending on political ads. The defeat leaves the Supreme Court's unpopular Citizens United ruling the de facto law of the land, giving big business a big stick to wield against its foes during the 2010 elections. Moderate Republicans, some of whom have condemned the Supreme Court ruling and sponsored similar campaign finance reform legislation in the past, characterized the DISCLOSE act as discriminatory. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) told the Christian Science Monitor that the bill "carves our certain favored groups, and that's just not fair."

Collins' complaint is ironic given that the bill's main carve-out, an exemption for grassroots political groups, was created to pacify the National Rifle Association, a staunch ally of Republicans. But the bill wouldn't have exempted groups such the US Chamber of Commerce. And there's the rub. The Chamber, which commands the nation's largest lobbying budget, has emerged as the attack dog of choice for PR-conscious corporations that are too afraid to play political hardball in public. And not coincidentally, it has announced a fatwa against Democrats this election season. Forcing the Chamber to disclose the funders of its political ads, as DISCLOSE would have done, might have hobbled one of the GOP's biggest allies.

Not surprisingly, Chamber CEO Tom Donohue called the DISCLOSE Act "nothing more than a brazen attempt to tilt the playing field in favor of the incumbent party in this fall's elections, silence constitutionally protected speech, and abridge First Amendment rights." But how does a political system that pits wealthy corporations against average citizens create a level playing field? And where does the Constitution specify that concealing the corporate money behind a political attack is an inalienable right? Those are questions that Democrats would be wise to ask voters—assuming they can cut through the all the noise of this season's corporate-funded political ads.


A Soldier with A Battery, Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), walks the tarmac of the Mosul Airfield June 9 at Contingency Operating Base Diamondback, Iraq. Photo via the US Army.

As heatwaves swept the Northeast earlier this month, 30 inmates in solitary confinement at New Hampshire State Prison went on hunger strike to protest stifling temperatures inside the prison's Special Housing Unit. According to the Concord Monitor, "Inmates in SHU cannot open windows and must remain in their cells, usually alone, for 23 hours a day. Unlike inmates in the prison's general population, they also can't go outside." One visitor to the prison said that inmates were "sitting in pure sweat," and had begun flooding their cells with a few inches of water in order to cool off.

A Department of Corrections spokesperson told the Monitor that inmates were refusing to eat until fans were installed, whether in cells or in nearby hallways. According to the paper, fans had recently been removed due to "safety concerns": Many prisoners, the DOC claimed, "were tearing them apart and fashioning them into weapons." Yet the prison also refused to place fans in the unit's hallways, where they might have benefitted both staff and inmates.

Noam Scheiber of The New Republic chips in Tuesday with the latest on Elizabeth Warren, the bailout watchdog and irrepressible thorn in Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's side, and her potential nomination to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Remember, this bureau was her idea, first proposed in 2007. And while she should be a shoo-in for the role, Warren's potential nomination has grown into a minor controversy and a cause celebre among progressive groups. Scheiber's story quotes a whole bunch of anonymous sources, does some back-of-the-envelope math, sizes up the GOPers who could back Warren, and arrives at the not-so-revelatory conclusion that "it wouldn't be surprising to see Warren nominated—and then quickly approved in an anticlimatic vote."

What grinds me about Scheiber's article, other than the reliance on anonymous sources, is this paragraph, about midway through the piece:

But, for the moment, what’s interesting is the banks’ silence. Three industry officials I spoke with took care to assure me that their organizations aren’t actively opposing Warren. One defied me to find someone in the industry who was. Another reflected that, from the banks' perspective, Warren might actually be preferable to Michael Barr, an assistant Treasury Secretary who is also a leading candidate for the position. [emphasis mine]

Noam must not read Mother Jones. Too bad. Last week, I reported that the industry is indeed lobbying against Warren's nomination. During a fly-in last week hosted by the American Bankers Association, one of the largest banking industry trade groups in the US, a number of presidents and CEOs of state bankers associations told me—on the record—that they used the visit as a chance to meet with their delegations and lobby against Warren's nomination. The presidents of the Iowa and Oklahoma Bankers Associations both told me they lobbied their delegations against Warren. A third banking association chief, George Beattie, the president and CEO of the Nebraska Bankers Association, told me he's had "a number of conversations" with Sen. Ben Nelson (R-Neb.) to express his opposition to Warren running the consumer protection bureau.

You might think the views of these three banking chiefs are outliers, but Beattie added this when I asked him about the national-level ABA's views on Warren: "With my colleagues at the ABA, these views about her would be shared." (The ABA did not return my requests for comment about Warren and Beattie's remarks when I reported last week's story.)

So, back to Noam. I wouldn't be so keen to take at face value what "three industry officials" say, as he's done in today's story. A quick Google search would've proved all three of them wrong.

Last week, Sarah Palin—via a Facebook note—endorsed former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, a Republican Senate candidate facing two other GOPers in a September primary. Palin called Ayotte a "mama grizzly," and Ayotte, in return, praised Palin as "a conservative icon who has brought enormous energy to our Party." Palin's thumb's up appeared to be a boost for Ayotte. But perhaps only in the short term.

Polling conducted after the endorsement shows Ayotte slipping in a match-up against Rep. Paul Hodes, a Democrat running for this Senate seat. Public Policy Polling reports:

Kelly Ayotte's seen her appeal to moderate voters crumble in the wake of her endorsement by Sarah Palin and her lead over Paul Hodes has shrunk to its lowest level of any public polling in 2010—she has a 45-42 advantage over him, down from 47-40 in an April PPP poll.

There's not much doubt that the shift in the race is all about Ayotte. Hodes' favorability numbers have seen little change over the last three months.

The polling firm points to Palin's seal of approval as the probable cause of Ayotte's decline.

The Palin endorsement may well be playing a role in this. 51% of voters in the state say they're less likely to back a Palin endorsed candidate to only 26% who say that support would make them more inclined to vote for someone. Among moderates that widens to 65% who say a Palin endorsement would turn them off to 14% who it would make more supportive.

Ayotte's favorability with moderate voters (the largest group of Granite State voters) has plummeted from +5 at 32/27 to -19 at 27/46. And Hodes' numbers haven't improved at all vs. the other potential GOP candidates—just against Palin-endorsed Ayotte. PPP notes that the Palin endorsement has "certainly helped" Ayotte in the Republican primary, in which she is already the favorite. But the Palin embrace will no doubt be an issue in the general election and, most likely, a liability for Ayotte , if she wins the GOP nomination. And if that does happen, Ayotte might then want to send Palin into hibernation. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are rejoicing at PPP's findings. The Democratic National Committee sent out an email this morning about the poll. Its subject line was "Why Sarah Palin endorsements are awesome."

(Last week, Nick Baumann predicted that Palin might be a problem for Ayotte.)

You've got to hand it to US Senate hopeful Andrew Romanoff out in Colorado: The man's got chutzpah. So much chutzpah, in fact, that he recently sold his $360,000 bungalow to boost his campaign's coffers in his effort to unseat Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet. Soon after his house sold, Real Clear Politics reports, Romanoff, the former Colorado house speaker, made a $325,000 donation to his campaign with two weeks to go before his August 10 primary bout against Bennet. 

Judging by somewhat recent polls, Romanoff's hefty donation is a last-ditch bid to salvage his Senate run. In a mid-June Denver Post/Survey USA poll, for instance, Bennet led Romanoff by 16 percentage points. Despite winning the endorsement of Bill Clinton, Romanoff has struggled to compete with Bennet throughout the spring and summer, both in the polls and in the fundraising battle. While Bennet, the former Denver education chief, raised $7.5 million the second quarter of this year and had $2.5 million in cash on hand, Romanoff paled in comparison, with $1.6 million raised and $464,000 on hand.

Romanoff justified the sale of his bungalow with a one-liner to the Denver Post: "I'm never home anyway."

For-profit universities have come under fire for driving exponential profit growth by preying on vulnerable student populations like the homeless, the poor, and the under-educated. But starting in 2012, these institutions will have to prove that they adequately prepare their students for "gainful employment" to remain eligible for federal aid.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the new rules late last week, adding that the regulations are not a denouncement of higher education's fastest growing sector, but rather a measure meant to protect students from "a few bad actors." He estimated that the new rule will disqualify about 5 percent of the industry from receiving federal funding.

For-profits can adhere to the new rules in one of two ways. They can verify that at least 45 percent of former students are paying down the principle on their federal loans, or they can show that graduates are paying no more than 8 percent of their total income toward student debt. This may, however, prove a tall order. A report published by the College Board in April showed that more than 50 percent of for-profit students graduate with $30,500 or more in debt—only 24 percent of graduates from private non-profit schools owed as much.   

Last week, ProPublica's Sharona Coutts wrote of for-profits stooping to another new low—luring single moms into expensive loans with ads for 'Obama Mom' grants: The ads told of stimulus funding for single moms interested in returning to college, but in fact, no such funding exists, the Department of Education confirmed. The fake ads were created by companies that mined users' personal information and sold it to for-profits. 

Autism advocates are following up on a DOJ investigation of the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), a private Massachusetts school that punishes some autistic, retarded, and emotionally troubled students with electric shocks. The Judge Rotenberg Center, whose practices were recently condemned by the UN as "torture," will be the subject of a radio interview between the International Coalition for Autism and all Abilities (ICAA) and Massachusetts state senator Brian Joyce. Joyce, who we've written about previously, has made stopping the JRC's electric shocks a goal of his for the past decade. He's introduced bill after bill trying to get the shocks outlawed, but this year his bill passed the Massachusetts senate and is headed to the House. ICAA's interview with Joyce will air Wednesday, July 28, at 10am CST. You can listen to the broadcast then at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/icaa or find it on iTunes. To read Mother Jones's groundbeaking investigation of the Judge Rotenberg Center, click here