5 important stories that are totally free of politics
Last week ended with two bangs: one literal, one metaphorical.
Republicans in the Senate invoked the so-called “nuclear option” to clear the path for Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, a politically divisive move that could have implications for years to come. Trump also authorized a strike that launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase, a response to a chemical weapon attack that left more than 80 civilians dead.
The media continues to assess the aftermath of those strikes and their implications for the U.S. on the global stage — as well as what Gorsuch’s early actions could mean for the court and the country.
In the meantime, here are five important stories that may not have triggered a push notification on your cell phone, but still deserve attention.
1. Why is there a school bus driver shortage ?
What does a school bus driver shortage have to do with an improving economy?
In Raleigh, North Carolina, the Wake County school district is struggling to get its students to school. Its supply of school bus drivers has fallen 18 percent, the Wall Street Journal reported. Today, 740 drivers are tasked with driving 160,000 students to school.
Lest you think this problem is particular to Wake County, think again. According to School Bus Fleet magazine, about 90 percent of the districts surveyed said they were short on school bus drivers in 2016. That number has climbed since the height of the Great Recession, when the unemployment rate hit 10 percent and the percentage of districts experiencing school bus driver shortages sat below 60 percent.
Today, the unemployment rate — down to 4.5 percent — is the lowest it’s been since the Great Recession, and bus driver jobs are sitting empty.
Why it matters
The shortage might be in part because we’re approaching what economist call “full employment” in this country: virtually all who are able and willing to work are employed.
If we take a look at the latest jobs report, the low number of jobs added might support such a theory. The U.S. economy only added 98,000 jobs in March — which was below economists expectations by about 80,000.
While part of that low job creation was likely due to winter storm Stella, “at 4.5 percent you’re just not going to see that dramatic payroll growth month after month,” economist Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown, told NewsHour.
“We should be seeing a hand off of from job growth to wage growth,” economist Mohamed El-Erian said, explaining that employers will have to work harder to attract or attain workers.
In Wake County, the district’s senior director for transportation Bob Snidemiller is already seeing this happen. “We have to get more competitive to succeed,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Our concern is that as the economy continues to grow, our competition is much greater.”
In Wake County, the starting salary for bus drivers is $12.55 an hour. Officials are trying to raise pay next year to attract drivers. They’re also offering retention bonuses of $750 to its drivers this year, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Wake County isn’t the only district looking to raise pay; more than half of the districts surveyed by School Bus Fleet magazine raised hourly pay to an average of $15.51 between 2015 and 2016 — a 31-cent increase.
When employers compete for workers, wages typically rise, as school districts are demonstrating. Lousy wage growth has been a mark on an otherwise robust recovery, but school bus driver recruitment through higher wages could be a predictor of what’s to come for the rest of the country.
2. What’s going to happen with the student loan debt forgiveness program?
The U.S. Department of Education is expected to roll out its application later this year for the first group of eligible borrowers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
One of the requirements of the program that forgives federal students loans is working for the government or a nonprofit with 501(c)3 status for 10 years.
But a legal filing in March cast doubt on whether the department could be counted on to keep its promise. A court document in response to a lawsuit brought by four borrowers and the American Bar Association suggests that student loan borrowers couldn’t accept the approval letters for forgiveness at face value. If anything, the filing suggested that the letters were tentative and can be reversed in the process.
“FedLoan Servicing’s response to the ECF does not reflect a final agency action on the borrower’s qualifications for PSLF,” the department wrote in the filing.
Now, the news has panicked the more than 550,000 borrowers that have signed up for the debt forgiveness program, wondering if they are correctly meeting the requirements along the way to the 10-year goal.
Why it’s important
What seems like a straightforward transaction is more complicated for the number of errors that can creep in the process. Borrowers must make the correct kind of payments for the correct kind of loans while working for the correct kind of employer under the correct kind of repayment plan.
The New York Times recently ran through requirements for borrowers, diving into the steps toward debt forgiveness and chronicling the stories ofthose who worry they’ve made a mistake.
“This is one of the most complex programs ever concocted by Congress,” Rohit Chopra, a former Education Department employee, told The New York Times. “So many people who are counting on getting some help are going to be flatly rejected on a technicality.”
When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was asked during his confirmation hearing about keeping the promises made with PSLF, she said she “will look forward to discussing these issues,” as highlighted by NPR.
There’s also the possibility that Congress scraps the PSLF program altogether, or at least reworks it under President Donald Trump, NPR’s Anya Kamenetz reported. Until then, Robert Shireman, former Deputy Undersecretary of Education under former President Barack Obama, told NPR that borrowers currently under the program ought to continue forward with payments and paperwork as the lawsuit continues.
3. Mexican newspaper shuts down, citing violence against journalists
Early in April, one Mexican newspaper said it was shuttering its doors, citing the murder of journalist Miroslava Breach.
Norte de Ciudad Juarez executive Oscar Cantu Murguia published a letter titled “¡Adios!” on the paper’s front page and website, announcing the farewell.
“On this day, esteemed reader, I address you to report that I have made the decision to close this newspaper due to the fact that, among other things, there are neither the guarantees nor the security to exercise critical, counterbalance journalism,” Cantu wrote. “Everything in life has a beginning and an end, a price to pay … And if this is life, I am not prepared for any more of my collaborators to pay it, nor with my own person,” he added.
Miroslava Breach was shot eight times in late March while she was pulling her car out of the garage of her home in northwest Mexico. She was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Some reports say authorities found a note at the scene that called the Mexican journalist a “tattletale” or “loud mouth.”
Breach, 54, was dedicated to reporting on stories of organized crime and corruption in her home state of Chihuahua. She wrote for Norte and national newspaper La Jornada. She was also a mother of three. One of her children, who was in the car when the shooting happened, was unharmed.
Why it’s important
Breach was the third Mexican journalist to be killed in the country in March.
Before Breach’s death, there was columnist Ricardo Monlui, who was shot dead in Veracruz the week before. And before Monlui, there was Cecilio Pineda Birto, a freelancer who was killed at a car wash in Guerrero state.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said 38 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 1992.
“This wave of violence threatens citizens’ right to access vital information, and harms Mexico’s democracy by limiting public debate,” the CPJ said in a statement, following Breach’s death.
4. Axon offers free trial of body cameras to police departments.
Axon, formerly known as Taser International, announced last week it will provide free body cameras to police officers across the nation in a yearlong trial.
The program from Axon, a technology company that makes law enforcement products such as body cameras and stun guns, gives each officer an Axon Body 2 camera as well as access to online trainings. The offer also includes docking stations for uploading footage, as well as camera mounts.
Axon’s devices are used by more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in more than 100 countries, the company says.
A spokesman for Axon told The Baltimore Sun said the offer was open to all departments nationwide, including those who already have Axon agreements and want to upgrade their equipment.
Why it matters
Not so long ago, body cameras were used less frequently in the police world.
But by 2013, about 32 percent or 3,900 police departments, equipped at least some patrol officers with body cameras, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Two-thirds of the police — 66 percent — and 93 percent of the public favor the use of body cameras, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
With those numbers in mind, making cameras more readily available to police seems like a good idea. But free access to body cameras doesn’t come without controversy.
So far this year, police officers have shot and killed 278 people, according to The Washington Post’s tracker of police-involved shootings. In 2016, body cameras captured 138 of 963 shootings, which is nearly double from the previous year. The cameras have been praised as a way to increase transparency and accountability; the Obama administration set aside $23 million for a body camera pilot program in 32 states.
Still, recordings do not always provide clarity.
Take, for example, the shooting of Keith Scott, a 43-year-old black man from North Carolina who was killed by police in September 2016. Although the incident was recorded with a body camera, the camera was not properly activated by the officer until after the shooting. The officer was not charged in that shooting.
Axon CEO Rick Smith, told CityLab the goal is to move manual police work toward a more technologically sound platform.
“We’re focused on automating the flow of information to allow agencies to make better decisions, primarily by audio and video but also through sensors to make sure the camera is recording or to send alerts back to the dispatcher,” he said.
It’s unclear what happens after the trial is up.
A policy scorecard published last year by activist group Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn showed that 42 of the 68 “major city” police departments have policies on body camera programs, as reported by CNN. Having the tools is one step, but developing a protocol to use them is another.
And “policies are only as good as the disciplinary procedures,” Harlan Yu, a principal at Upturn who provides Internet expertise for policy makers, told CNN.
5. The rights to a century’s worth of music are up for sale.
Carlin Music was founded by the song picker for Elvis Presley, seen in this 1977 video singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
One of the largest and last remaining independent music publishers in the U.S. is up for sale.
For half a century, Carlin Music has collected the copyrights for songs by everyone from Elvis Presley to Nat King Cole and AC/DC, along with soundtracks to Broadway hits like Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret. Today, it has the rights to 100,000 songs across all genres — a collection that’s now up for grabs for a cool $250 million, reports The Financial Times.
Carlin Music was founded by Freddy Bienstock, who immigrated to the United States from Vienna with his family at the start of World War II. In 1942, at age 14, landed a job at Chappell and Co on Tin Pan Alley, New York City’s famous music publishing district. He made a name for himself as a song picker for Presley, and in 1966, acquired the company he would later name Carlin Music, after his daughter Caroline. The company represents more than a century of hits, from 1905’s “In My Merry Oldsmobile” to Michael Buble’s 2016 recording of “The Very Thought Of You.”
Why it’s important
Carlin’s collection includes the soundtrack to Cabaret, the title track performed here by Liza Minnelli.
Carlin Music is one of the biggest players in music publishing, which means its sale could significantly change how music is valued and licensed.
The Financial Times reported that Sony/ATV, Atlas Music and Concord Music are all interested in putting in a bid.
The news of the sale also comes on the heels of other shakeups in the industry: Canadian Music Publisher ole — whose catalog includes 50,000 songs and 60,000 hours of music from television and film — could also be up for sale if it doesn’t find a new equity investor, Billboard reports. It’s seeking at least $650 million for its collection.
Last year, Sony bought out the late Michael Jackson’s 50 percent stake in Sony/ATV Publishing, whose collection includes the Beatles portfolio. The Beatles’ Paul McCartney reportedly insisted that Jackson purchase the licensing company ATV in the 1980s; in the ’90s, when he merged that collection with Sony, it became “one of the great business legends of the industry,” the New York Times says.
Sony/ATV has more than three million songs in its collection, making it the largest music publisher in the world. If it moves forward with a bid on Carlin, its collection would be unprecedented.
Of course, this could go the other way, too. Other publishing companies unhappy with the bids they’ve received have taken themselves off the market.
For now, Carlin waits and wonders — as one of its singers, Ricky Skaggs, does in song — “Who will sing for me?”