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Vox Sentences: This time, nature wins

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A hallmark conservation bill is passed by the Senate; charges against a former US Air Force intelligence agent.


A bipartisan win for Mother Nature


Mario Tama/Getty Images

  • In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act Tuesday. The landmark conservation act will protect 1.3 million acres of wilderness, establish new monuments, and expand some national parks. [The New York Times / Coral Davenport]
  • The 92 to 8 victory comes as President Donald Trump openly doubts on climate change and rolls back environmental protections. The key to the bill’s success may be the benefits it confers on the states of nearly every senator who voted for it: Taxpayers are projected to save $9 million, parks will be expanded, new national monuments built, and mining claims near public land removed. [The Chicago Tribune / Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni]
  • One of the package’s major winners is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which will receive permanent authority to use offshore drilling revenue to pay for conservation sites at parks, preserves, and other public sites. [The Washington Post / Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni]
  • Here’s one catch: Nearly half a million acres of federal land in Alaska will be privatized. The land will be redistributed among about 2,800 Native American Vietnam War veterans — however, not only are these veterans getting old, but there’s nothing prohibiting them from selling these rich allotments to developers. [The Washington Post / Christopher Solomon]
  • The act also protects cultural history that’s tied to the natural environment. In California, 43,000 acres will be added to Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, and wilderness that is home to a historic trade route will be protected. [The Guardian / Cassidy Randall]

Former Air Force member helped Iran target US intelligence

  • Monica Elfriede Witt, 39, was charged with espionage Wednesday for sharing classified information with Iran, including a Pentagon operation’s code name and mission. According to a Department of Justice indictment, the former US Air Force counterintelligence agent was simultaneously working for the elite Iranian paramilitary group, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. [The New York Times / Adam Goldman]
  • Witt speaks Farsi and had a top-secret clearance when she worked for the military from 1997 to 2008. She defected to Tehran in 2013, after attending conferences that promoted anti-American sentiments, and allegedly began working on the country’s behalf. [NPR / Ryan Lucas]
  • While taking advantage of Iranian-provided housing and computers, Witt allegedly supplied the IRGC with “target packages” that helped the Corps track counterintelligence agents using false Facebook accounts and phishing emails, which gave Iran access to computer data. [CNN / Nicole Gaouette]
  • In one 2012 article for Press TV, Witt is quoted criticizing a culture of sexual harassment in the US armed forces. Her last known contact was in 2013. [BBC]
  • The charges come days after Iranians filled the streets to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1979 revolution that began the current Islamic Republic. Demonstrators espoused frustration with the US and the Trump administration’s decision to reinstate sanctions after pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal last year, but the day also revealed the uncertainty surrounding the nation’s future. [The Brookings Institution / Suzanne Maloney]

Miscellaneous

  • Nearly 1,600 migrant children ages 13-17 live in dormitories in a “temporary influx facility” in southern Florida. With pizza parties and classrooms, the for-profit shelter is painting a different perspective than the traumatized accounts of kids living away from their families. [NPR / John Burnett]
  • Diversity is the main focus for 2020 Democratic candidates looking to hire campaign staffers, as all-white and all-male teams no longer appeal to voters. [Politico / Laura Barrón-López and Alex Thompson]
  • Wisconsin GOP lawmakers removed former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s name from a resolution honoring individuals for Black History Month. Republicans in the state legislature cited the need to select figures that “bring us together,” despite Kaepernick’s $25,000 donation to a Milwaukee NGO that benefits teens. [The Hill / Aris Folley]
  • A BBC cameraman was attacked at a Trump rally on Monday, and the British foreign secretary condemned the assault. The BBC has called on the Trump administration to do more to protect the press. [Vice News / David Gilbert]
  • Pressure to have more women in the boardroom is mounting for smaller companies, as investors increasingly prioritize boards with more diversity. [The Wall Street Journal / Kristin Broughton]

Verbatim

“If I run for president, one of the first things I would do is I would visit every world leader that this president has damaged in terms of our relationship and restore the trust and confidence in America, because we need them to go forward to establish America’s leadership.” [Potential 2020 presidential candidate Howard Schultz in a CNN town hall on Tuesday.]


Watch this: When forensic science fails

How “science” and “justice” failed Robert Lee Stinson. [YouTube / Joss Fong]

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Oakland teachers strike: Union calls strike for pay, smaller classes

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Teacher frustration keeps spreading.

Public school teachers in Oakland, California, said they will strike on Thursday, following 18 months of tense negotiations with district officials over pay raises and classroom sizes.

“We have had it. Enough is enough, bargaining with our school district has not worked,” said Keith Brown, a middle school teacher and president of the Oakland Education Association, during a press conference on Saturday. “Our schools have been starved of resources for years.”

If they don’t reach a deal before Thursday, about 3,000 teachers won’t show up to work in one of the state’s largest school districts, which has struggled from years of budget cuts and poor student performance.

Teachers say the lack of investment in city schools is hurting student performance. The cost of living in Oakland has also skyrocketed in recent years, due to an influx of high-skilled workers unable to afford housing across the bay in San Francisco, making it impossible for teachers to live there on their current salaries, Keith said. Teachers want a pay raise, smaller class sizes, and more counselors and nurses.

The strike in Oakland would come a month after teachers in Los Angeles walked off the job with similar demands — and ended up getting a lot of what they wanted. At the time, LA officials said the same thing Oakland officials are now saying: We just don’t have the money.

Oakland schools are facing a $56 million budget deficit in the next two years, so the school board wants to cut school spending, not increase it. School officials are trying to get more money from the state, but teachers are ready to walk out. And they know they have leverage.

It’s just the latest strike in what’s becoming a national trend. More than 100,000 public school teachers in six states have walked out of class in the past year, rebelling from years of stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, and deep budget cuts to education. The strikes in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, California, and Colorado had broad public support, forcing state lawmakers to raise pay and fueling a national movement to boost investment in public education.

So far, that momentum shows no signs of slowing down.

Funding for public schools in California is a mess

Oakland teachers share a lot of the same frustrations that led LA teachers to walk out of class in January. They say school districts are spending too much money on privately run charter schools that have little public oversight. They also believe they are paid too little working in a state with much wealth.

California is among states spending the least on each student (adjusted for the cost of living), largely because of the state’s strict limits on property tax rates.

The Oakland Education Association, a labor union representing 3,000 educators, has been trying to negotiate a new contract since the last one expired in 2017. Teachers want a 12 percent pay raise over three years, smaller classes, and more support staff. One school counselor for every 600 students is not conducive to a student’s success, says Keith Brown, the group’s president.

The district has offered a 5 percent raise over three years.

Teachers rejected the offer.

“Unless there are dramatic changes to the district’s approach, including spending more money on students and for nurses and counselors, lower class size, and a living wage that will keep Oakland teachers in the classrooms, we will strike,” Brown said.

The school district has said it is willing to keep negotiating for a better deal to avert the strike, and would consider some recommendations from an independent panel, which found that low teacher pay, large class sizes, and school privatization were hurting Oakland schools. The report also acknowledges the state’s “complicated, flawed” system for funding public education.

“Despite our challenges, we are prepared with a comprehensive proposal to reach an agreement. If both sides are committed to settling the contract before a strike occurs —and we are — an agreement can certainly be reached without disrupting the educational experience for students, families and staff,” Oakland Schools Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said in a statement Saturday.

They have three days to try and reach a deal.

Teachers are leading a national workers revolt

A record number of US workers went on strike or stopped working in 2018 because of labor disputes with employers, according to new data released last week by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A total of 485,000 employees were involved in major work stoppages last year — the highest number since 1986, when flight attendants, garbage collectors, and steelworkers walked off the job.

Frustrated public school teachers were behind the year’s largest walkouts, but hotel housekeepers and steelworkers also organized strikes that lasted for days.

There are no signs that worker angst has subsided. So far, in 2019, teachers in two major cities have launched their own strikes. And in January, the Los Angeles teachers strike shut down the nation’s second-largest school district for more than a week.

As part of their deal with city officials, teachers agreed to a 6 percent raise and slightly fewer students in each classroom, according to Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a labor union that represents about 34,000 public school teachers, nurses, librarians, and support staff in the city.

Last week, more than 2,000 teachers in Denver went on strike for three days. The school district ended up giving educators and extra $23 million in pay and agreed to overhaul the compensation system, which relied heavily on annual bonuses.

Now Oakland teachers are prepared to walk out, and Sacramento teachers may follow.

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