The Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia school districts are out of money due to political fights in their statehouses. Privatization through charters and vouchers continues to grow. States adhere to the supply-side theory that prescribes radical tax cutting as the only way to attract jobs and grow the economy. States rank and rate school districts and create policies that explain low achievement in the very poorest districts by castigating the schools and blaming the teachers. I hope those of us who know better will stay informed, get organized, and continue to lift our voices, because the forces on the other side have constructed and funded an institutional framework to ensure that their policies get enacted by the legislatures across the states. And as more and more states have school vouchers, for example, that give tax dollars to families to fund private and parochial schools, vouchers become normalized in the public’s mind and the idea that something is wrong with public education becomes normalized as well. It is unsettling that none of this is being probed in the ongoing political campaigns for President.
This coherent, calculated effort to undermine government and promote privatization—being rolled out through “model” laws that can be adopted by any state legislature—is underwritten by corporations along with some of our nation’s wealthiest political investors, and it pairs state legislators with corporations that stand to gain from legislation their lobbyists help design. It is called ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Here is how New York’s Common Cause described ALEC in a report last year: “Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), some of the nation’s largest companies invest millions of dollars each year to pass state laws putting corporate and private interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans. ALEC’s membership includes some 2,000 state legislators, corporate executives and lobbyists. ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to vote as equals on model bills, behind closed doors and without any public input, that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line. These model bills are then introduced in the state legislatures across the country….” Some people have described ALEC as a dating service that pairs corporate lobbyists and state legislators. Too often the corporate lobbyists are the primary authors of ALEC’s model bills.
Is your state legislature considering passing Right to Work legislation to destroy the right of workers to unionize? One of ALEC’s model bills is the “Right to Work Act.” Here are titles of just some of ALEC’s other model bills: “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” (tuition tax credits are a kind of school voucher); “Public Charter School Operations and Autonomy Model Legislation”; “The Virtual Pubic Schools Act”; “The Charter Schools Act”; “The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act” (another voucher plan); “Public Charter School Funding and Facilities Model Legislation”; “Education Savings Account Act”; “The Next Generation Charter Schools Act”; “Alternative Certification Act”; and the “Parent Trigger Act.”
The Center for Media and Democracy and its PR Watch and its ALEC Exposed project have set out to demonstrate how ALEC operates across the states. Here is how PR Watch’s Brendan Fischer describes ALEC’s activity during 2015: “Despite widespread public opposition to the corporate-driven education privatization agenda, at least 172 measures reflecting American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model bills were introduced in 42 states in 2015… ALEC’s education task force has pushed legislation for decades to privatize public schools, weaken teacher’s unions and lower teaching standards. ALEC’s agenda would transform public education from a public and accountable institution that serves the public into one that serves private, for-profit interests. ALEC model bills divert taxpayer money from public to private schools through a variety of ‘voucher’ and ‘tuition tax credit’ programs. They promote unaccountable charter schools and shift power away from democratically elected local school boards.”
ALEC’s model bills use a number of strategies to push an idea like vouchers forward. Many of them seem targeted to very small groups of students, and they are usually not called “vouchers.” ALEC’s bills don’t always get passed, but legislative members of ALEC are relentless about keeping the legislative conversation focused on ALEC’s priorities. Here is how Fischer describes various voucher bills introduced across state legislatures in 2015: “ALEC has cooked up a variety of means of gaining ground on school privatization…. A handful of ALEC bills claim to offer ‘scholarships’ for sympathetic populations—like students with disabilities or foster kids—but are actually targeted voucher programs…. One ALEC bill, the Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, carves out vouchers for students with special needs, regardless of family income. Nine states—Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island—considered similar legislation in 2015…. Another ALEC bill, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, would create a voucher program specifically for children in foster care, and was introduced in Missouri. ‘Opportunity Scholarships,’ introduced in four states—Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and New Mexico—earmark vouchers for students in schools deemed ‘failing.'”
Once smaller bills are passed, there are relentless efforts to expand them. The original Milwaukee voucher program, passed in the 1990s, was promoted to support access to private and parochial schools for Milwaukee’s poorest children. Now under Governor Scott Walker, vouchers have been expanded statewide and the income requirement allows families with income above the statewide median to qualify.
Here is how Fischer describes the Center for Media and Democracy’s methodology in preparing its recent report: “CMD reviewed thousands of bills introduced in state legislatures in 2015 to assess whether they contained language consistent with ALEC bills. In determining that there were at least 172 ALEC models within state bills—that is, bills containing key provisions consistent with ALEC’s legislative agenda—CMD examined both stand-alone and omnibus measures.” At the end of his report, Fischer lists the bills state-by-state and identifies those that passed.
According to Fischer’s report on ALEC’s 2015 activity, it isn’t only corporations that fund ALEC by paying corporate dues for their lobbyists: “One of ALEC’s biggest funders is Koch Industries…. The Kochs have had a seat at the table—where the private sector votes as equals with legislators—on ALEC’s education task force via their ‘grassroots’ group Americans for Prosperity and their Freedom Partners group…. The Kochs also have a voice on ALEC’s Education Task Force through multiple state-based think tanks of the State Policy Network, ALEC’s sister organization, which is funded by many of the same corporations and foundations and donor entities.” The State Policy Network includes such far-right state think tanks as the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, the Mackinac Center in Michigan, and the John Locke Institute in North Carolina. Fischer describes additional ALEC allies including Dick and Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and its affiliate the Alliance for School Choice and the relentless Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee that “has spent more than $31 million promoting ‘school choice’ nationwide between 2001 and 2012.”
One huge irony is that the Internal Revenue Service considers ALEC a tax-exempt, educational nonprofit instead of classifying it as a lobbying organization. In 2012, Common Cause filed an IRS complaint to challenge ALEC’s status. As the NY Times reported in Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist, ALEC defended itself by arguing, “that it provides a forum for lawmakers to network and to hear from constituencies that share an interest in promoting free-market, limited-government policies. Lobbying laws differ by state, and ALEC maintains that if any of its members’ interactions with one another happen to qualify as lobbying in a particular state, that does not mean ALEC, as an organization, lobbies.” The NY Times report continues: “ALEC, which is registered as a public charity under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, traces its roots to 1973, when the conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich and several other Republicans sought to create a state-level clearinghouse for conservative ideas. Although its board is made up of legislators, who pay $50 a year to belong, ALEC is primarily financed by more than 200 private-sector members whose annual dues of $7,000 to $25,000 accounted for most of its $7 million budget in 2010.”