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Was there a Beyoncé bump in applications to black colleges? It’s too early to tell, but ‘Homecoming’ definitely had an impact

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Beyonce reportedly hoped her Coachella performance would inspire more students to enroll at HBCUs. 

College students aren’t necessarily known as early risers, but on Tuesday morning Nia Page, a junior at Spelman College in Atlanta, made sure she was up well before 9 a.m.

That’s because her school was giving out tickets on a first-come first-serve basis beginning at 9:30 for an advanced screening of Beyoncé’s Homecoming documentary, which debuts Wednesday on Netflix NFLX, -0.06%

“It should be really exciting,” said Page, the rising student government president at Spelman, a prestigious black women’s college.

The film chronicles the making of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance last year, which was a celebration of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a category of colleges created before 1964 with the primary mission of educating black students. The production included marching band performances in the style you’d encounter at a football game featuring an HBCU team and step team routines reminiscent of those you might see performed by a black Greek letter organization.

The mega-star followed up the performance by announcing a scholarship, called the Homecoming Scholars Award Program, that provided $25,000 to four students at four different HBCUs. The singer reportedly hoped that both her performance and the scholarship would inspire more students to enroll at HBCUs.

It’s difficult to tease out Beyoncé’s role in any student’s decision to enroll at a given college, but her decision to highlight HBCUs certainly had an impact. When eagle-eyed Spelman students spotted their school’s T-shirt hanging on a rack near Beyoncé as she prepared for Coachella, the event “basically went viral on Spelman’s campus,” Page said. “We were very, very proud of that, we loved it.”

In addition to creating buzz on HBCU campuses, Beyoncé’s performance may have also had an impact on prospective students’ decision-making. Page said that when she spoke to high school seniors last year who were considering Spelman as part of an admitted students program, “I heard Coachella brought up a lot.”

“We welcome the opportunity to join in the celebration of the invaluable contributions and distinct culture of historically Black colleges and universities,” Spelman’s president, Mary Schmidt Campbell, said of Tuesday night’s screening.

It’s perhaps too early and complicated to tell if there’s been a Beyoncé-bump in enrollment at these schools. But her performance comes as part of a broader increase in enrollment at HBCUs over the past few years. The uptick is a result of a variety of factors, including, experts say, more cultural and political appreciation for the schools.

That includes prominent politicians like U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat running for president and Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the race for Georgia governor, highlighting their experiences at HBCUs on the campaign trail and looking to their alumni communities for political support. In addition, movies like Jordan Peele’s “Us,” which features prominent references to Howard University, are also putting the spotlight on these schools.

Total fall enrollment at HBCUs ticked up about 2% between the 2016 and 2017 academic years, even as college enrollment overall declined.

“It’s been a part of now a four-year movement that we’re seeing that has embraced and affirmed HBCUs in a way that hadn’t happened in recent years,” said Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, a private HBCU in New Orleans. Still, “whenever Beyoncé does something it takes it to another level,” he added.

Her performance and other more recent references to HBCUs aren’t the first pop culture references highlighting the schools. “A Different World,” a late 1980s and early 1990s-era sitcom and spinoff of “The Cosby Show” focused on the experiences of Denise Huxtable at a fictional historically black college. The show, which ran for several seasons, helped to influence a cohort of students to consider HBCUs that hadn’t necessarily before, said Crystal deGregory, a history professor at Kentucky State University, an HBCU.

“Is it a moment that is going to translate to dividends as enduring as lets say A Different World? I don’t think so,” deGregory said of Beyoncé’s performance. “Trends in pop culture are really too fleeting at this moment.”

In addition, HBCUs have faced enrollment challenges over the past several years. It may take more than some goodwill from a major star to overcome those hurdles. At the same time “A Different World” was pushing some students towards HBCUs, “you also had those most affluent in black America trying to demonstrate in the positioning of their children in highly selective and historically white institutions that they had arrived — that they were somebody,” deGregory said.

Changes to Parent PLUS loans hurt enrollment at HBCUs

HBCUs have also faced more recent major challenges enrolling students. In 2011, the Obama administration tightened the underwriting standards for Parent PLUS loans — a type of federal student debt that parents can use to help finance their childrens’ education. The loans are controversial because traditionally the Department has made them to parents without doing much to ensure they could repay them, saddling some with unsustainable debt as they approach retirement.

The new standards announced in 2011 stipulated that, among other things, parents who had accounts in collections within the last five years wouldn’t be eligible. Given that African-Americans have historically had limited access to wealth in America, black families were particularly reliant on Parent PLUS loans. The tightened underwriting had the effect of making it much more difficult or nearly impossible for many students to attend HBCUs, sending many of the schools into a state of financial panic.

The Obama administration later loosened the standards, but the damage was already done, said Brian Bridges, the vice president for research and engagement at UNCF, an HBCU member organization. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs dropped from 327,000 to 293,000, an analysis of Department of Education data by the Pew Research Center found.

Now, a more public embrace of HBCUs by Beyoncé and others is helping to reverse this trend.

“While it is hard to show a direct correlation between student enrollment at our 47 member-schools and Beyonce’s amazing performance at Coachella, what we do know is the attention, positive news coverage and goodwill she has generated has certainly been welcomed and impactful,” Harry Williams, the president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an association of public HBCUs, said in a statement. “We have seen more positive media exposure on HBCUs, our marching bands, culture, and value in the higher education space.”

More overt racism is pushing some students to HBCUs

But there are also other societal factors at play. The uptick in racial tension over the past few years at colleges that have been historically majority white, in addition to the increase in public displays of racism after the election of President Donald Trump has students and their families looking for colleges where they feel safe and understood.

Students are looking for colleges “where there are more people who look like them and understand their experience in America,” Bridges said. “HBCUs are a beneficiary of that. Some of the tension in the country is driving students and their families to consider HBCUs more closely again.”

‘Some of the tension in the country is driving students and their families to consider HBCUs more closely again.’
— Brian Bridges, the vice president for research and engagement at UNC

While the renewed attention to HBCUs from Beyoncé and others is welcome, deGregory said she wishes the mega star and others would do more to ensure the longterm stability of the schools.

“These generous gifts to institutions vis a vis the Beyoncé scholars are transformative in the lives of those students,” she said. “One would be hard-pressed to make the claim that they are transformative in the life of the institutions themselves. It quite frankly just requires way more resources.”

The $100,000 in total that Beyoncé donated to these schools is frankly a drop in the bucket compared to some of the multi-million and even billion dollar donations announced by predominantly white institutions on a semi-regular basis.

Representatives for Beyoncé did not return a request for comment.

HBCUs have historically relied in part on philanthropy from wealthy white donors

HBCU’s struggle to bring in as much as these institutions in part due to broader inequality in higher education financing, a system where the schools with the most resources continue to grow those resources.

But HBCUs also face a very specific challenge in their quest to sustain their finances: the racial wealth gap. Given that black families have less wealth to draw on, HBCUs are often serving students and families for whom paying for college is a major challenge. That also means when their students graduate, they may have less wealth from which to donate back to their alma mater.

HBCUs have also historically relied on philanthropy from wealthy white donors, but it’s been notoriously fickle, deGregory said. As soon as black students were allowed to attend historically white institutions, and did, white philanthropists who had traditionally supported black students by supporting majority-black schools began doing so by supporting majority-white institutions that enrolled back students — but in relatively low numbers.

Beyoncé’s activism surrounding HBCUs could widen the network of support — including monetary — for these schools by bringing the “power of HBCUs to new and old audiences,” said Marybeth Gasman, the director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions.

“I do think that when you have somebody of that stature doing these things it does cause kind of a ripple effect,” she said.

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Tiger Woods Celebrates Masters Win With The Sweetest Family Embrace

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His family was ready to greet him with wide open arms.

Amid a frenzy of cheers and celebratory chants, a happy Tiger Woods strode off the 18th green after securing his fifth Masters win on Sunday to share the moment with his smallest, but no doubt most ardent, supporters ― his two children. 

Woods’ 10-year-old son, Charlie, ran into his father’s outstretched arms near the hole and was lifted into the air by Woods as they shared a tight embrace. Following close behind to greet Woods and exchange hugs were the golfer’s mother, Kultida Woods, his 11-year-old daughter, Sam Alexis, and his girlfriend, Erica Herman.

Fans on social media likened the emotional moment to one Woods had with his late father, Earl Woods, when he won his first green jacket at the age of 21 in 1997.

Sunday’s win was Woods’ 15th in golf’s major tournaments ― but his first in one of those four in almost 11 years. No doubt making it that much more special was that it was the first such triumph that he could savor with his children ― his daughter was still a baby when he won the U.S. Open in June 2008 and his son hadn’t been born.

The Human Costs Of Kamala Harris’ War On Truancy

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The “progressive prosecutor” wanted to transform how California responded to students missing school. Parents like Cheree Peoples wound up paying the price.

On the morning of April 18, 2013, in the Los Angeles suburb of Buena Park, a throng of photographers positioned themselves on a street curb and watched as two police officers entered a squat townhouse. Minutes later, their cameras began clicking. The officers had re-emerged with a weary-looking woman in pajamas and handcuffs, and the photographers were jostling to capture her every step.

“You would swear I had killed somebody,” the woman, Cheree Peoples, said in a recent interview. 

In fact, Peoples had been arrested for her daughter’s spotty school attendance record under a truancy law that then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris had personally championed in the state legislature. The law, enacted in January 2011, made it a criminal misdemeanor for parents to allow kids in kindergarten through eighth grade to miss more than 10 percent of school days without a valid excuse. Peoples’ 11-year-old daughter, Shayla, had missed 20 days so far that school year.

TOP PHOTO: Cheree Peoples outside of the apartment where she lives when her 17-year-old daughter, Shayla, is at Children's Ho
TOP PHOTO: Cheree Peoples outside of the apartment where she lives when her 17-year-old daughter, Shayla, is at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Peoples was arrested six years ago for Shayla’s repeated truancy despite ample evidence given to the Orange County school showing Shayla suffers from sickle cell anemia, which leaves her in constant pain and requires frequent hospitalization. (Credit: Tara Pixley for HuffPost)  
ABOVE: Buena Park police officers Luis Garcia (left) and James Woo escort Peoples, 33, to their patrol car on April 18, 2013. She was handcuffed and under arrest.

The law was the capstone of Harris’ yearslong campaign to get “tough” on truancy, the term for when a child consistently misses school without a valid excuse. Harris’ involvement began in the mid-2000s, when the future senator and 2020 presidential candidate was the San Francisco district attorney. Harris had been disturbed to learn that a disproportionate number of the city’s homicide victims were high school dropouts, and that dropouts are more likely to become perpetrators or victims of crimes. Preventing truancy, she argued, was not just about the noble goal of ensuring every child’s education, but a matter of averting future criminals. So it only made sense for the city’s top law enforcement officer to get involved. Harris filed charges against a handful of San Francisco parents whose elementary school-aged children were consistently missing school.

A few years later, she persuaded the state legislature to adopt harsher penalties for truancy. Under the new law, the parent or guardian of a young, truant child could face a fine of $2,500 or more — or one year in jail. Harris pushed hard for the law as she was running for attorney general, and it passed just as she won the election.

“We are putting parents on notice,” Harris said at her 2011 inauguration. “If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.”

Orange County heeded her call with particular enthusiasm. On the morning Peoples was arrested, police arrested five other parents — including several in front of waiting news crews — as part of what one assistant district attorney painted as an effort to prevent children from “being criminals or joining a gang.” The district attorney described Peoples’ conduct in unsparing terms, telling local news outlets she had ignored the school’s numerous requests for meetings and multiple warnings that Shayla was truant. 

“The defendant was offered counseling and parenting classes,” read a press release from the district attorney’s office. “The student was provided the opportunity for a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County, a mentor at school [and] monthly meetings with law enforcement officers.” Peoples never responded to those offers, it claimed. 

Peoples in handcuffs on April 18, 2013.
Peoples in handcuffs on April 18, 2013.

Peoples read all this several days later in a state of disbelief. She has a soft manner and voice and has dedicated most of her adult life to caring for Shayla — who has lived with sickle cell anemia, a serious genetic illness that causes her acute pain and requires frequent hospitalization and medical procedures, since birth. 

Shayla frequently missed school because she was in too much pain to leave the house or was hospitalized for long-term care. Her school was aware of these circumstances; it had records on file from the regional children’s hospital explaining that Shayla’s condition would necessitate unpredictable absences and special educational accommodations. Peoples and the school had worked together to set up some of those accommodations, which are required under federal disability law. At the time of her arrest, Peoples claims she was fighting with the school to get it to agree to additional accommodations under an Individualized Education Plan, which she said the school had rejected. 

“This is a young woman who spends a lot of her life in the hospital,” Peoples said. “How is it that she’s giving off the impression of being a gang member? … Why are they coming after me?”

Peoples was caught up in the hugely complex forces Harris and her tough-on-truancy stance unleashed more than a decade ago.

Harris has since replaced her punitive stance with the message that parents of truant children need help, not scare tactics. It’s a shift that happened roughly in step with voters’ waning tolerance for using the criminal justice system to address complicated social problems and Harris’ own preparations to seek higher office. In the memoir she released shortly before announcing her candidacy for president, Harris described her work on truancy as “trying to support parents, not punish them.”

Her evolution also supports the story she’s telling voters on the 2020 campaign trail: that she was trying to change the system from within in a way that is “consistent with progressive values.” She has packaged herself as part of a new generation of “progressive prosecutors” who used the office to achieve transformational change.

Peoples massages Shayla, who is being treated for sickle cell anemia at Children's Hospital of Orange County, on March 10.
Peoples massages Shayla, who is being treated for sickle cell anemia at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, on March 10.

Yet the penalties she once championed for truancy and the way she originally thought about the issue are foundational to how California handles truancy today. Peoples’ arrest wasn’t a freak occurrence ― it was the inevitable outcome of Harris’ campaign to fuse the problem of truancy with the apparatus of law enforcement. And Peoples is far from an outlier. There are still hundreds of families across California entering the criminal justice system under the aegis of Harris’ law.

“I think it was a good thing that she shined a light on [truancy],” Jeff Adachi, who served as San Francisco’s chief public defender from January 2003 until his death on Feb. 22, told HuffPost in February. “There is a correlation between children who fail at school and what happens later in life. [But] the idea of locking parents up, or citing them with a crime because they’re not taking their children to school — it doesn’t address the root of the problem.”

Adachi said Harris’ record on truancy exemplified why he was always skeptical of the notion of a progressive prosecutor.

“That’s the common narrative, that you have a person who comes in and says, ‘I can change the system by becoming the system,’” he said in a January interview with public radio station KQED. “You can have some influence. But it’s a system because the people in power act according to the design. And if you’re a prosecutor, your job is to charge people with crimes.”

‘A Time Bomb’

Harris is hardly the first person to argue truancy should carry the possibility of jail time. Virtually every state has compulsory attendance laws and a long history of incarcerating parents — and even children — who fail to comply. A single county in Pennsylvania jailed more than 1,600 parents between 2000 and 2015 for their failure to pay truancy-related fines.

California law has made it possible to prosecute parents of truant children since at least 1977. That year, the state defined a truant as a student who was more than 30 minutes late to school three times, or who had missed three days of school, without a valid excuse; a truant’s parents could be fined $100 on their first conviction. Truancy wasn’t technically a jailable offense at the time, but prosecutors who wanted to see jail time often charged parents with the crime of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

Despite being the focus of so much enforcement, the question of what causes children to miss school wasn’t the subject of much scholarship until about 10 years ago.

Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that studies and promotes best practices for reducing school absence, walked me through some of the emerging research, much of which is no surprise: Regular school attendance is vital to almost every aspect of a child’s future. Young children who miss too much school are less likely to develop basic social and academic skills as a consequence, and they are more likely to fall behind in class and drop out of school as they grow older. The tipping point for when the risk sets in is around 10 percent of missed instructional time. And the negative effects of missing school are more pronounced for children in lower-income families. 

Researchers have identified some common reasons for school absences including barriers outside the school, such as a chronic illness, a lack of housing or not having a safe path to school; a negative school experience, such as a harsh or biased learning atmosphere; a lack of engagement because of something like high teacher turnover; or a lack of understanding, on the part of parents, of the risks of missing too much school.

Other new research has called the law-and-order approach into question. The evidence increasingly shows that pure punishment is less effective than prevention. Schools can prevent many instances of truancy by making parents aware of the associated academic risks and by identifying and fixing the systemic barriers to attendance, such as bullying, unreliable transit or safety issues.

There has been less research into the best methods of intervention, although it generally supports positive, personalized outreach. And there has been very little research into the appropriate role of law enforcement. According to what does exist, law enforcement is only effective when combined with earnest prevention efforts and outreach.

“A punitive legal approach, I just haven’t seen evidence that shows that works,” Chang said.

New research also suggests that “truancy” is an arbitrary metric. The term refers to unexcused absences, but California gives individual schools substantial flexibility to determine what constitutes a valid excuse. (Certain reasons, like illnesses and religious observances, are always valid by law.) As a measure of academic risk, it makes more sense for schools to track absences, since ultimately what matters is the amount of school a child misses and not the reason why.

“Truancy” is more like a measure of blame, and blame is subject to all sorts of biases. It’s not clear if students of color are more likely to have their absences deemed “unexcused” than white students who miss school for the same reasons. But we do know that black and Native American students, nationally, make up a disproportionate share of truant students.

Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris discusses the first statewide statistics on the elementary school truancy cris
Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris discusses the first statewide statistics on the elementary school truancy crisis during a symposium featuring officials in law enforcement, education and public policy on Sept. 30, 2013, in Los Angeles.

What jumped out to Harris was the connection between truancy in early childhood and devastating outcomes later in life. “Ignoring truant children is like tiptoeing over the sizzling fuse on a time bomb,” she wrote in her first book, Smart On Crime, in 2009.

As district attorney, she had her office send letters to every household with a child in public school explaining that truancy was a crime — and one she was prepared to prosecute. Most schools already had a policy of calling or meeting with parents whose children missed too much class, and school officials began referencing her threats in their phone calls. Harris assigned county prosecutors to attend those meetings and “look as stern as they could,” she wrote.

Community activists at the time found Harris’ threats shocking and “crude.” They predicted the hammer would come down hardest on the most vulnerable families and make their circumstances worse.

But Harris admirers said her focus on truancy exemplified her itch to transcend the traditional role of a prosecutor.

“The thing about Kamala that I saw on every issue I worked with her on, she is always asking, ‘What are the root causes of the problem?‘” said Jill Habig, who oversaw juvenile justice issues for Harris’ office after she was elected attorney general. “She really rejected the notion that all a prosecutor should do is focus on charging people with crimes and putting people in jail.”

Harris wasn’t perturbed by the criticisms, either. She charged six parents with infractions in 2008, using a newly created truancy court that had special procedures. The judge deferred any punishments as long as families began to comply with the law. “The goal was not to get them into trouble but to find a way to exert enough pressure on them that they would change,” said David Kopperud, the longtime chair of California’s statewide student attendance review board. 

What it ended up being, practically, is families and kids having to come to court to be told to utilize certain services in order to come to school. Which, from where I sit, is very much the job of the school district and not the job of the criminal court.a public defender

San Francisco’s truancy rate began to fall. In a speech she gave a few years later, Harris credited her tough approach, saying, “We threatened the parents of truants with prosecution, and truancy dropped 32 percent.”

What distinguished Harris’ approach wasn’t the process itself as much as who was involved, and when. She was using the same basic system — the school identifies a truant student; the school contacts the parents; the school, or a local attendance board, holds a meeting, if necessary; the school refers the problem to the district attorney, if necessary — that counties across California had been following for decades. Harris’ innovation was that school authorities and the district attorney would work in concert, articulating the threat of prosecution much earlier in the process and keeping school officials involved long after a case was transferred to court.

“It was using the law to support what the school was doing, and vice versa,” Kopperud said. “And she had a lot of success.”

Limitations

Harris was elected California attorney general in 2010, and she wasted no time in taking her model statewide. Her office began to spotlight the counties with the most dismal truancy rates and how many tens of thousands of dollars it cost them. (A school’s average daily attendance is part of the state’s education funding formula, so schools lose money when students are frequently absent.) She highlighted best practices and issued sweeping recommendations for raising attendance with language that was notably softer than what she used in public.

“Early intervention by law enforcement should be supportive, not punitive,” the first report read. She added muscle to local attendance review boards — in the truancy process, they sit above the individual school but below the county court — by requiring them to include a representative of the district attorney’s office, and, after a brief outcry, of the public defender.

But it was her first victory that attracted the most notice and outrage: In 2011, at Harris’ urging, California enacted its first-ever criminal penalties for parents of truant children. Previously, having a truant child was an infraction punishable by a small fine. Under the new law, parents of truant children could be charged with a criminal misdemeanor and face a fine of at least $2,000, or up to one year in jail. The law defined a child to be truant if he or she missed 10 percent or more of school days without a valid excuse and the school district has attempted a certain number of interventions. Just as in her San Francisco trial run, the law allowed the court to defer judgment if the parent agreed to a mediation period and turned things around.

Harris, who was the attorney general for California at the time, talks with students at the East Oakland Pride Elementary Sch
Harris, who was the attorney general for California at the time, talks with students at the East Oakland Pride Elementary School in Oakland on Sept. 4, 2014. She sponsored legislation to help local school districts and communities address California’s elementary school truancy crisis.

By now, many felt the San Francisco model had clear limitations. Parents were not being jailed or fined en masse as activists had initially feared. But to critics, the language Harris used to encourage a truancy crackdown and the system she reinvigorated were cementing the idea that parents always were the ultimate source of the problem.

Most of the families in truancy court were dealing with circumstances largely or entirely out of their control, said a public defender who represented parents in San Francisco’s truancy court for many years. That often included violence at school or a school’s failure to accommodate a chronic illness. If a family wasn’t responding to the school, it was usually because they were dealing with bigger crises having to do with poverty. Almost all of the parents under the microscope were black or Latino.

“What it ended up being, practically, is families and kids having to come to court to be told to utilize certain services in order to come to school,” said a public defender who asked not to be named because she continues to work in juvenile justice. “Which, from where I sit, is very much the job of the school district and not the job of the criminal court.”

The system was not set up to correct the more powerful forces arrayed against the parents. “Their idea was, you’re not going to school, and — whether or not what the school district is doing is sufficient to get you to school — we have this mechanism to cite you,” the public defender said.

I put some of these criticisms to Katy Miller, a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office who has worked on truancy issues since Harris’ time.

“I ask myself those same questions, and I think [Harris] did as well: At the end of the day, what is the solution in these cases where we feel like everything has been offered and the dynamic hasn’t changed?” she said. “Are we just going to let it be? It’s a hard question, I think we should be very parsimonious as prosecutors.” In San Francisco, Miller said, the district attorney only takes parents to court if their kids have missed 40, 60 or even 80 days of school.

Habig defended Harris, noting that as attorney general, Harris formed a new agency called the Bureau of Children’s Justice to investigate and solve systemic barriers to education; the idea was to hold the education system accountable, not just parents.

As attorney general, however, Harris had limited influence over whether local prosecutors carried out the spirit of her new law. Several counties that had always taken a punitive approach simply reserved the new penalties for the parents they saw as the worst of the worst. Each year, Kings County, in the Central Valley, charges hundreds of parents with infractions under California’s old laws; it has charged 19 misdemeanors under Harris’ law in the past four years, and at least two mothers have been sentenced to jail. In Tulare County, also in the Central Valley, there have been 14 cases, and they bring officials there a sense of pride. In a brochure from a 2016 student attendance conference, the county lauded its attendance supervisor as having “successfully submitted” three truancy cases the district attorney charged under Harris’ new law, on top of 500 cases being charged under California’s old laws.

Orange County, where Peoples was arrested, has charged a total of 22 parents under Harris’ law. The district attorney’s office, Shayla’s elementary school, and the Buena Park School District all declined to answer questions about Peoples’ case or how prosecution decisions are made. Tony Rackauckus, who served as the district attorney at the time of Peoples’ arrest and left office this January, also declined to answer questions but said he was “extremely proud” of his offices’ anti-gang efforts, including truancy enforcement. (Almost all of the truancy prosecutions under Rackauckus occurred in the 18 months leading up to one of his re-election campaigns; it’s not clear if this is a coincidence.)

And San Francisco — Harris’ old district — hasn’t actually charged any parents under the new law. Prosecutors there haven’t found it necessary to be that punitive, Miller said. 

The Bully Pulpit

Assessing Harris’ legacy is difficult. She wasn’t the only one pushing new policies around truancy, and crucially, she didn’t get everything she wanted. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D), citing a need to preserve local autonomy, blocked a measure that would have forced all 58 counties to follow the same basic truancy process and a bill to track the number of truancy prosecutions that occurred under Harris’ law. As a result, the state still doesn’t know how many parents have been arrested, arraigned or full-on prosecuted under Harris’ criminal truancy statute, Kopperud said.

In fact, for all its investment in addressing chronic absenteeism, California isn’t sure if class attendance has gone up or down over the past decade. The state can’t make a clean comparison because it has changed the way it collects data several times, Kopperud said. 

But no one really doubts that Harris had a meaningful impact.

“She was able to use her office as a bully pulpit for the understanding that chronic absence and truancy were both major issues, to help people understand the scope and scale … and the value of taking a positive, problem-solving approach,” said Chang, the Attendance Works executive. That made a much bigger difference than adding new criminal penalties, she said.

What Harris says from that bully pulpit has changed over the years. When she was San Francisco’s district attorney, she talked about “getting tough on truancy” and called truancy “a parent issue” stemming from “neglect.” If her prosecutors happened to discover that the parents they were prosecuting faced difficult circumstances, she framed it as incidental to the larger problem of failed parenting.

“Along the way, we learned some things about the situations some of these families faced and found we could help,” she wrote in Smart On Crime. “For example, we met a mother with three children who was homeless and holding down two jobs trying to get her situation under control.” Harris’ office helped her find housing.

Ten years later, Harris would say that connecting parents to the appropriate resources was the whole point. (Her campaign declined an interview request.)

“[Critics] assume that my motivation was to lock up parents, when of course that was never the goal,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold. “Our effort was designed to connect parents to resources that could help them get their kids back into school, where they belonged. We were trying to support parents, not punish them—and in the vast majority of cases, we succeeded.”

Her story had evolved enough that I was curious to see which version applies in California today. So in February I traveled to Humboldt County, in northern California, to observe a monthly session of the county’s student attendance court. Outside there was a historic downpour, but Judge Joyce Hinrich’s voice was upbeat as she told the damp crowd of parents and students that her court was about changing behavior, not punishment. She promised there wouldn’t be any fines or jail time as long as the student’s attendance improved.

The judge led the court in several rounds of applause for families whose attendance was getting better, but eventually it came time for new arraignments. A woman named Shannon, who was there with a pair of little boys in rain boots and large sweatshirts, spoke to me in the hall with a shaking voice after entering a not-guilty plea.

“I’m very disturbed to be here again,” she said, her voice trembling. Her sons are avoiding school because they are being viciously bullied — recently, she said, another boy kicked her younger son in the crotch so hard he couldn’t walk the next day — and this was her second misdemeanor charge in five months. She felt as though she was out of options.

Rory Kalin, the public defender representing several parents that day, has heard countless similar stories. Kalin feels about one-third of his clients haven’t done anything wrong; in the other two-thirds of cases, the parents have made missteps against the backdrop of a larger issue such as poverty, homelessness or trauma. Humboldt County covers 4,000 square miles of rugged forest and lacks reliable transportation. It is also home to many Native American families, for whom school often has a traumatic association — government-run education, historically, was a tool of forced assimilation.

Although Kalin supports the student attendance court and says everyone is working in good faith, “there are these overarching issues that this court can’t address,” he said. “To hold a parent responsible for that is fundamentally unfair.”

School officials are deeply sensitive to these broader problems. For every Humboldt County parent facing prosecution — there were 35 misdemeanors charged in the 2017-18 school year, the county said — there are scores who worked with the schools to reach a solution before things escalated. Gillian Wadsworth, a licensed clinical social worker with the county education department, tries to help every parent avoid court by connecting them to free or low-cost services such as transportation, counseling, medical care, substance abuse treatment or temporary shelter.

When law enforcement takes the wheel, it tends to be because the family — often for complicated and sympathetic reasons — isn’t responsive and the school finds itself in a bind. Shannon hasn’t reached out to Wadsworth, she noted, and her phone number is disconnected. “The law is pretty clear,” Wadsworth said. “When the law is broken … right now the system that exists and can intervene is the criminal court.”

Peoples outside of the apartment where she lives when Shayla is in the hospital. 
Peoples outside of the apartment where she lives when Shayla is in the hospital. 

And yet not everyone is subject to the same system. State-run classrooms for incarcerated youth have posted some of the highest truancy rates in California, often without consequence. The state’s private schools, which enroll an estimated 647,000 students, aren’t legally required to participate in this system, Habig confirmed, meaning parents who can afford private school are functionally exempt from truancy prosecutions.

Wadsworth understands these inequalities on a personal level. Her daughter, who is in high school, has a serious medical issue and at times has had to miss 20 percent of the school year. Wadsworth has never been in the kind of trouble that would land her in truancy court, in part because she knows “how to work the bureaucracy,” as she puts it. “My family has enough resources and connections and the skill base to make sure the school is happy with why it is that she’s absent and prevent any large-scale intervention in my life,” she said. 

The families present in Hinrich’s court the day I visited have much more complicated lives. They hadn’t been arrested and perp-walked, and it’s unlikely any of them will wind up paying fines or serving jail time — Kalin, the public defender, could only recall one or two cases ending in formal punishment. But for many there will be a lasting sense of stigma, Kalin said.

For all his and Hinrich and Wadsworth’s efforts, there was no mistaking the place where they determined parents’ fates as anything other than a criminal court. An armed bailiff scolded people for having their phones out. “DO NOT COMMUNICATE WITH THE PRISONERS,” signs on the walls warned visitors.

As the last of the families trickled out, I exited to the hallway to find Martin Morris, an assistant district attorney.

“I hope you enjoyed what you saw today,” he said as he put on his winter coat. “It works for some and we’re happy with that.”

‘Living The Worst Nightmare’

Peoples’ case trudged through the judicial system for two years. She had dozens of court dates, at least one every month, and at times it seemed as if the entire district attorney’s office was involved. Her case was passed among eight different prosecutors, including a recent transfer from the homicide squad.

When she was with Shayla, she tried to mirror her daughter’s sunny outlook.

“She is a joy,” she said. “Shayla is one of those kids you wish every kid was like.”

In private, though, she was fraying. During her ordeal, Peoples kept an on-and-off video diary in which she appeared haggard and anxious. “It’s hard on the body, it’s hard on the mind,” she said softly in one entry. “Right now, I am living the worst nightmare that any mother could possibly understand and go through.”

But Peoples held fast to her not-guilty plea. She refused to agree to anything that didn’t amount to a total exoneration. She especially balked when the prosecution offered not to pursue the charges if she took parenting classes, thinking, what parenting classes could cure sickle cell? On Aug. 12, 2015, the charges were finally dismissed.

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Peoples and Shayla. 
Peoples and Shayla. 

Peoples does, in fact, struggle with the kinds of issues that the truancy process can supposedly bring to light and resolve.

There is the all-encompassing fact of her daughter’s illness, which causes Shayla chronic pain and has required regular hospital stays, including multiple surgeries and countless blood transfusions. Peoples is also dealing with all of the consequences of dedicating herself so fully to her daughter’s care. She cannot realistically hold a full-time job. She has struggled to afford a place to live, faced eviction, and dealt with homelessness. On certain dates when the school alleges it was trying to meet with her, Peoples was recovering from the C-section birth of her son. In recent years, she has also become a part-time caretaker for her mother, who had a stroke.

Her recollection of how the school reacted to all of her challenges is very different than what the district attorney laid out. Instead of offering her help, Peoples said, the officials at Shayla’s elementary school tended to stonewall her or be suspicious. There were several times where it felt as though the school didn’t believe her when she said Shayla was not well enough to attend school, Peoples said. School officials were opaque when she asked if they needed more doctors’ notes, she claims. Peoples said she even asked for some of the resources that the district attorney would later claim she turned down — like a peer mentor for Shayla — and that the school wouldn’t communicate. The school began counting Shayla as absent without an excuse just a few days after they rejected one of Peoples’ requests for medical accommodations, Peoples said.

Today, Shayla is in high school. She’s been in the school choir and band. There are just as many days when she is in too much pain to go to school or can’t go because she is hospitalized. But Shayla’s new school works with Peoples to accommodate her needs, and as a result, Peoples’ legal troubles over truancy are behind her.

It wasn’t a victory as much as something Peoples survived. “I lost time with my son” and Shayla, she said. “I lost life. I lost me.”

Now Trump Wants Judges To Throw Out The Entire Affordable Care Act

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Previously the administration said it would be fine to leave some of the law in place.

The Trump administration on Monday adopted a more extreme position on a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act: Instead of asking the federal courts to throw out just one part of the law, as it had done previously, now the administration wants the courts to throw out the entire thing.

Protections for people with pre-existing conditions, tax credits for lower- and middle-class insurance buyers, expanded state Medicaid programs for the poor ― all of these things would be gone, and millions of people would lose health insurance if the administration gets its way.

And the effects would not stop there. The health care law includes all kinds of other, lesser-known provisions, touching everything from the way Medicare pays hospitals to the calorie counts on food menus.

“The notion that you could gut the entire ACA and not wreak havoc on the lives of millions of people is insane,” Nicholas Bagley, a University of Michigan law professor and expert on the health care law, wrote in a quick reaction article at “The Incidental Economist” website. “The Act is now part of the plumbing of the health-care system.”

It was less than two months ago that President Donald Trump, during the State of the Union address, declared that one of his priorities was “to protect patients with pre-existing conditions.” It was a vow he has made repeatedly, going back to the 2016 campaign ― and yet it is one he has also broken repeatedly.

Trump spent most of 2017 trying to pass legislation that would repeal Obamacare, as the ACA is known. When that failed, his administration focused on using its regulatory authority to undermine the law.

And in the summer of 2018, the administration decided to back this latest lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. That was a highly unusual move, because by tradition the executive branch defends federal statutes in court — even those the president might oppose.

To be clear, the lawsuit still has a long ways to go before prevailing. 

Although it got a favorable ruling from a federal district judge in Texas, it is currently before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. If it gets past the 5th Circuit, it would almost certainly go before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already turned away two major challenges to the 2010 health care law. And those cases were widely viewed as more serious than this one.

Texas v. Azar, as this latest lawsuit is known, comes from Republican officials representing 20 states. It asserts that, by eliminating the financial penalty for people without insurance as part of the 2017 tax cut, Congress removed the health care law’s constitutional underpinning.

Because Congress originally intended for the law’s interlocking pieces to work together, and because judges must respect the will of Congress, the entire statute should come off the books ― or so the lawsuit claims.

A loud, bipartisan chorus of legal experts has said this argument is absurd. Congress may have once thought the penalty was an essential part of the law, these experts note, but by 2017 Congress had obviously changed its mind, as it has the right to do.

The notion that you could gut the entire ACA and not wreak havoc on the lives of millions of people is insane.Nicholas Bagley, University of Michigan law school

“Congress told us what it wanted through its 2017 legislative actions. ... It repealed the penalty while leaving the insurance reforms in place,” five legal scholars, two of whom had led previous legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act, wrote in an official brief when the case first went before a U.S. district judge in Texas.

With so many experts criticizing the argument, and quite a few mocking it, the chances for success would appear to be slim. Still, the 5th Circuit is full of conservative Republican appointees ― and, at this point, nobody is willing to dismiss the threat of this lawsuit out of hand.

That is why the Justice Department created such a stir last June when it made the unusual decision not to defend the law in court.

Even then, however, the Justice Department broke with the plaintiffs by asking the courts to invalidate only one portion of the law ― specifically, the new regulations on private insurance and pre-existing conditions. A major purpose of the financial penalty for people without insurance — a provision also known as the individual mandate ― had been to make those regulations function more effectively.

Until now, the administration’s legal position was to let the rest of the Affordable Care Act stand.

On Monday, the Justice Department filed a note with the court saying that it now intends to side with the plaintiffs fully because it agrees with the district judge. In other words, the administration now believes the entire law should go.

“It’s a complete bombshell,” Abbe Gluck, professor of law at Yale, told HuffPost after learning of the filing on Monday evening. “The administration went from taking the position that only some of the insurance reforms should be struck down to now saying the entire ACA ― Medicaid expansion and all ― should go down with this ship. …  It’s a total 180, with drastic human consequences.”

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HUFFPOST.COM

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/trump-administration-pre-existing-conditions-court_n_5c999b91e4b0d42ce360169c

Stacey Abrams Is Channeling Her Anger Into A Fight For Voting Rights

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“I’m still angry,” the former candidate for Georgia governor said of her narrow loss in November, speaking at an LGBTQ event in San Francisco.

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is still angry about her narrow election loss in November — but she’s channeling that anger into a new fight for voting rights.

“I was angry and I was sad. My heart was broken. And I’m still angry,” Abrams said Friday, referring to the election, speaking before a crowd of hundreds at the Lesbians Who Tech summit in San Francisco’s historic, queer neighborhood of the Castro. The event was focused on increasing the visibility of LGBTQ people in tech fields.

In November, Abrams narrowly lost her race for Georgia governor to then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) in an election mired in a voter suppression controversy.

“I’m like Bruce Banner: I’m always angry right now,” Abrams joked, referring to the superhero character the Hulk. “I’m angry and sad, but I don’t know how to be still anymore. I believe we can fix what is broken.”

“I know we can demand a fair fight,” she added, saying that since the election she had started the group Fair Fight Georgia, which works to promote fair elections and voter participation.

The group’s mission echoes much of her previous work on voting rights. Abrams founded the New Georgia Project in 2014, an organization that has registered over 300,000 black people to vote in the state.

“Voter suppression, it works by convincing people in practice that they don’t count,” Abrams said Friday. “It is designed to silence those voices, say that there are people that do not count.”

“Voter suppression happens in every election, in every state. I need you all to talk about voter suppression all the time,” she added. “We need to talk about voter suppression the way we talk about the Kardashians… with such insistence that people have to respond.”

Earlier this year, Abrams delivered the Democratic response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. Many have speculated that Abrams will enter the crowded Democratic field for the 2020 presidential race. She’s said she will make a decision by the end of March. In January, she met with top Democrats about a potential 2020 bid for one of Georgia’s seats in the U.S. Senate.

“I can’t go back and win 2018, but I can win 2020 and 2022,” Abrams said at Friday’s event while discussing her work on voting rights.

As the crowd broke into cheers, she laughed and added: “That was not an announcement.”

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HUFFPOST.COM

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/stacey-abrams-voting-rights-election_n_5c79e91ce4b0e1f776519e2f

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