How Can Schools Be Voucherized? Let Us Count the Ways… and the Consequences

School privatization via vouchers has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Private school vouchers are also a favorite cause of Vice President Mike Pence and the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Most of us are not particularly familiar with vouchers in general because they have until now been a project of state governments. We are likely to know about what’s happening in our own state, but perhaps be unaware about trends across the states. Did you know, for example, that school vouchers are called by a number of names?

5 Names Politicians Use to Sell Private-School Voucher Schemes to Parents is a short resource that clarifies how all these programs work: “(V)ouchers divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools—starving them of the critical funding needed for students to thrive—only to use these funds to subsidize private and/or religious schools.  However, voucher proponents, like (Betsy) DeVos and politicians found in your state almost never call them vouchers. Instead, they attempt to mislead parents, taxpayers, and voters by re-branding these plots to drain and defund public education with some pleasant-sounding, flowery name plucked from the school-choice lexicon—Opportunity Scholarships—Parental Choice Scholarships—Tuition Tax Credits—Charitable Tax Credits—Education Savings Accounts.

NEA explains that Opportunity and Parental Choice Scholarships give parents public money to use for tuition (and sometimes transportation, fees, and equipment) at private and parochial schools.  Because these vouchers are insufficient to pay for tuition at a great many traditional private schools which charge as much as private colleges, vouchers are frequently used by parents of students at religious schools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only federally funded voucher scholarship program is the one in the District of Columbia. Congress has never been able to muster the support to enact vouchers federally—only in Washington, D.C. where, perhaps not coincidentally, the residents lack a voting Congressional representative. Vouchers, which began in Milwaukee back in 1989, have grown steadily as statehouses have tipped toward domination by the far right. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have plain old voucher (scholarship) programs in which students are given a publicly funded coupon to cover tuition at a private or parochial school: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin, along with Maine and Vermont which have both had longstanding tax scholarship programs for children in isolated rural areas lacking public school districts.

Tuition Tax Credits are also a kind of vouchers. Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188) For parents in states with tuition tax credits, the pet project is the education of their own children, but some states also have broader Charitable Tax Credits for education—tuition tax credit programs that allow individuals and corporations to contribute to state school tuition organizations that then make scholarship grants to students to pay for their tuition at private schools.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of December 2016, 17 states offered different types of tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

The National Education Association defines another—the newest—kind of vouchers: Education Savings Accounts: “Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education… (T)he common factor is that these programs pay parents all or a large portion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children in exchange for an agreement to forego their right to a public education. Funds deposited into such accounts may be used for any number of expenses, including private school tuition, fees, textbooks; tutoring and test prep; homeschooling curriculum and supplemental materials; special instruction and therapeutic services; transportation; and management fees. These programs also permit parents to roll over unused funds for use in subsequent years and to invest a portion of the funds into college savings plans.” In Education Savings Account voucher plans, the state itself deposits funds in parents’ accounts, and the parents can shop around for particular services, perhaps split among a number of vendors.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as December 2016, only 5 states had such programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, though Nevada’s program is on hold because the state supreme court found its funding system unconstitutional.

Vouchers of all forms have arrived in the 50 state capitols in the form of bills cooked up elsewhere and then introduced by sympathetic legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, a membership organization, pairs member state legislators with corporate lobbyist members and with members who represent special interests—in the case of vouchers, the ideologues from the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization), and the Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice—to create model laws that can then be handed to member state legislators to be introduced in any state. ALEC is often dubbed a bill mill.  ALEC’s model bills for various kinds of vouchers include a Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Opportunity Scholarships, the Smart Start Scholarship Program, the Education Savings Account Act, and the Great Schools Tax Credit Act.

Here is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, in a recent column commenting on what vouchers do to public school funding. This time the example is Mike Pence’s home state, Indiana: “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases. When Indiana started its voucher program, it claimed it would save taxpayers money. Not only did that not happen, the state’s education budget is now in deficit, and the millions shelled out for vouchers grows each year. Last year, vouchers cost the taxpayers of Indiana $131.5 million as caps and income levels were raised. Indiana now gives vouchers to families with incomes as high as $90,000 and to students who never attended a public school.” Burris adds that while the program was passed, “promising that it would help poor and lower-middle class families find schools they like for their children… as it turned out, five years after it began, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended Indiana public schools and many vouchers are going to wealthier families, those earning up to $90,000 for a household of four.”

Last week, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee journalist, Barbara Miner shared her insights after observing the Milwaukee voucher program since its beginning: “For more than a quarter-century, I have reported on the voucher program in Milwaukee: the country’s first contemporary voucher initiative and a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland to New Orleans, Florida to Indiana.  Milwaukee’s program began in 1990, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing 300 students in seven nonsectarian private schools to receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. It was billed as a small, low-cost experiment to help poor black children, and had a five-year sunset clause. That was the bait. The first ‘switch’ came a few weeks later, when the Republican governor eliminated the sunset clause. Ever since, vouchers have been a divisive yet permanent fixture in Wisconsin.” “Since 1990, roughly $2 billion in public money has been funneled into private and religious schools in Wisconsin, and the payments keep escalating.” “Today, some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers, not just in Milwaukee but throughout Wisconsin. If it were its own school district, the voucher program would be the state’s second largest. The overwhelming majority of the schools are religious.”

A serious problem, reports Miner, is that voucher schools are not required to protect the civil rights of their students, including the rights guaranteed by federal law in all public schools: “Because they are defined as ‘private,’ voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency. They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech. They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services. They can suspend or expel students without legal due process. They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records. They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.”

Miner warns, “Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination… Privatizing an essential public function and forcing the public to pay for it, even while removing it from meaningful public oversight, weakens our democracy.”

VP Nominee Mike Pence Brags He Supported ALEC “Before It Was Cool”

After the Republican convention in Cleveland, Mike Pence, the Republican nominee for Vice President of the United States, went home to Indiana, where he is governor, and made a speech to the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Here is a description from James Briggs, a reporter for the Indianapolis Star: “First, Gov. Mike Pence returned home to Indiana from the national campaign trail. Then, he came home to his base. Pence on Friday addressed a room full of kindred spirits at the American Legislative Exchange Council. The free-market policy group concluded its three-day annual meeting at the JS Marriott in Downtown Indianapolis.  ‘You are the model for Washington, D.C., after this election,’ Pence told the room….”

Pence’s description of ALEC as a model ought to terrify anyone who knows anything about the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a sort of dating service that pairs member corporate lobbyists with member state legislators. Too often the corporate lobbyists are the primary authors of ALEC’s model bills.

Here is how New York’s Common Cause describes ALEC in a recent report: “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….”  ALEC’s effort to undermine government and promote privatization 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 the corporations that stand to gain from legislation their lobbyists help design.

Briggs of the Indiana Star continues: “Pence’s speech… was light on references to Trump and heavy on ALEC’s bread and butter: state government.  ALEC is an influential policy group that drafts model legislation for statehouses across the country.  Pence joked that he was ‘for ALEC before it was cool.'”  Briggs quotes Pence “telling ALEC members he came to ‘say thank you for the work all of you have done in state legislatures.’ He urged those in attendance to use the November election to make the federal government reflect politically conservative states such as Indiana.”

Writing for PR Watch, Jessica Mason and Lisa Graves describe Pence’s record of pushing ALEC’s priorities in Indiana: “As Governor, Pence appointed an ALEC staffer to his cabinet, and pushed parts of the ALEC agenda into law, such as anti-worker bills like repealing the prevailing wage and privatizing public schools in various ways.  He even sent a letter to state legislators urging them to join ALEC, which is widely described as a corporate bill mill. ALEC is funded by Koch Industries, Peabody Energy, huge global tobacco and drug companies, and other corporations that pay a premium to access ALEC lawmakers.”

The PR Watch report explains: “School privatization proponents have slowly been dropping the pretense that the ‘school choice’ movement is about helping underprivileged children.”  Last week’s convention featured a workshop on education titled: ‘The Path to Universal Choice: From Theory to Passage to Implementation.”  And at ALEC’s annual meeting last week, delegates considered new model bills that can be disseminated across the states to make it harder to close poor performing charter schools: “Two new bills being considered by what ALEC now dubs its ‘Education and Workforce Development Task Force’ could help poorly performing charters stay open without having to improve. Under the Assessment Choice Act, instead of using a uniform assessment for students statewide, charters’ authorizers would take their pick from a ‘menu’ of tests, unlike traditional public schools. If propping up test scores isn’t enough to save a charter from closure, the ‘Student and Family Fair Notice and Impact Statement Act’ promises to add new hurdles. Before closing or restructuring a charter school, this act would not just require that families be notified. It would also create a public hearing process in which parents, teachers, and ‘experts’ could give testimony about the school, and the charter board would be allowed to suggest a response plan. In case it wasn’t obvious that the bill is meant to keep the charter in operation, the drafter of that model bill added: ‘[drafting note: it should be clear the school can present an alternative for supporters of the school to rally around.]'”

Members of the Indiana State Teachers Association rallied during Pence’s address to protest the governor’s long affiliation with ALEC and his decision to address ALEC’s annual convention.  Think Progress reporter, Casey Quinlan notes that under Pence and his predecessor as governor, Mitch Daniels, ALEC has increased its legislative membership in Indiana by 40 percent.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is currently granted 501(c)3 educational nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service.  We all need to join Common Cause and others who have been working to press the IRS to treat ALEC as what it really is: a lobbying organization.

ALEC Relentlessly Cashes in on Kids and their Public Schools

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.”

Beware These Three Governors, All Republican Presidential Contenders

Campbell Brown is the far-right, former CNN anchor who has become an advocate against teachers’ unions and due process protections for teachers.  She has now founded a so-called news site, The Seventy Four.  Reporters for Politico call it a “news advocacy site.” There are, of course, questions about objectivity in Campbell Brown’s venture, both in possible biases in the opinions expressed and in the selection of topics to cover.  For example, The Seventy Four has begun broadcasting debates on the topic of public education policy among the Republican candidates for president. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have, to my knowledge, not been invited.  The first of these debates, co-sponsored by The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children—Betsy DeVos’ organization that promotes school vouchers, took place this week.  Not surprisingly, the candidates declared themselves devoted to far-right education doctrine, and the program was set up to affirm the far right opinions of the candidates who appeared.

It is my plan to concentrate more deeply on the race for President in a few months when November 2016 is closer.  In the meantime, however, it is important for those of us who share a concern about the future of public education to be very clear about the candidates who have significant records on public education.  Three of the Republican candidates—whose ideas have been covered in recent weeks in the mainstream media or in reports from organizations that support public education instead of privatization—brag about education “reforms” as the centerpiece of their records as governor.  This post will explore these three governors’ records to provide some balance to what you may have heard in the recent event staged by Campbell Brown and Betsy DeVos.

There is Ohio’s current governor, John Kasich.  In a recent piece at the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant covers Kasich: “Given the current crop of Republican governors bidding for the presidential nomination, it is difficult to pick which has been worse on education policy… But the effect Governor Kasich has had on public education policy in Ohio is especially atrocious.”  In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss summarizes Kasich’s record on education: “Kasich has pushed key tenets of corporate school reform: expanding charter schools… increasing the number of school vouchers… (implementing) performance pay for teachers… evaluating educators by student standardized test scores in math and reading…. Meanwhile, the Ohio Education Department in Kasich’s administration is in turmoil.  David Hansen, his administration’s chief for school choice and charter schools resigned… after admitting that he had unilaterally withheld failing scores of charter schools in state evaluations of the schools’ sponsor organizations so they wouldn’t look so bad… Under his watch, funding for traditional public schools—which enroll 90 percent of Ohio’s students—declined by some half a billion dollars, while funding for charter schools has increased at least 27 percent, with charters now receiving more public funds from the state per student than traditional public schools…. If Kasich’s goal for his reform efforts was to close the achievement gap, it hasn’t worked…. Ohio has the country’s ninth-largest reading gap between its highest-and lowest-performing schools, as well as the second-largest achievement gap in math, and the fourth largest gap in high school graduation rates.” This blog has covered Ohio education policy extensively in regular posts.

Of all the candidates, Jeb Bush has the most extensive and damaging record on public education, as he and his Foundation for Excellence in Education have radically expanded charter schools in Florida, expanded vouchers, promoted A-F rating systems for schools, and promoted privatized on-line academies and the expansion of contracting for school technology.  This blog has summarized Bush’s education record herehere and here.  Recently Business Insider confirmed Bush’s boast at the early August, Republican presidential debate: “As governor of the state of Florida, I created the first statewide voucher program in the country.”  Business Insider reports: “Bush… was not over-selling his accomplishment.  In 1999, under his gubernatorial oversight, Florida became the first state in the nation with a statewide voucher program.”  In an extensive recent report for Alternet, Jeff Bryant traces Bush’s expansion of charter schools across Florida, beginning in 1996 with the launch of Liberty City Charter School in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.  Bryant traces charter school growth across Florida, a history replete with closures and the promotion of  charters tied to key legislators. Bryant concludes, “Since introducing Florida’s first charter school to Liberty City, Jeb Bush has come to refer to his education efforts in the state as ‘the Florida Miracle,’ and his education leadership will no doubt be trumpeted as one of his signature achievements during his presidential campaign.”  But, Bryant interviews Dwight Bullard, the current elected state representative of the district that includes Liberty City: “Bullard tags Bush for introducing a ‘plethora of bad ideas’ to Florida’s education system, including instituting a school grading system that perpetually traps schools serving the most struggling students with an ‘F’ label, and opening up communities to unproven charter schools that compete with neighborhood schools for funding. ‘What he started was something that would harm the most struggling schools.  Grading them, robbing them of resources, closing them down.  Doing undue harm to the exact people who need the help the most.'”

Finally there are Scott Walker‘s ties to ALEC.  Brian Murphy’s stunning article for Talking Points Memo not only exposes Walker’s record as governor of Wisconsin, but it is among the clearest exposes I’ve read of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the lobbying organization that the Internal Revenue Service continues to grant not-for-profit educational status, despite a long and courageous effort by Common Cause to get ALEC’s IRS status adjusted.  Murphy reports that Scott Walker has been one of the nation’s leaders importing ALEC’s model laws to his state, Wisconsin: “voter ID laws, so-called ‘right to work’ laws, attacks on private and public sector unions, attacks on clean air standards and sustainable energy, pro-charter school bills, attacks on college accreditation and teacher certification, laws proposing to centralize rule making on energy, pollution, power plants, state pension investments, tort reform… food labeling….”  These laws “seem to pop up in different state capitals seemingly simultaneously, with the identical legalese backed by the same talking points and even the same expert witnesses. ALEC is often the reason.”

Murphy explains just how the American Legislative Exchange Council works: “Commonly known as ALEC, the group is somewhat unique in American politics.  It boasts more than 2,000 members of state legislatures, the vast majority of whom are Republican.  And at its annual meetings and other sponsored retreats and events, it pairs those state lawmakers with lobbyists and executives from its roster of corporate members.  Together lawmakers and private interests jointly collaborate on subcommittees—ALEC calls them ‘task forces’—to set the group’s legislative agenda and draft portable ‘model’ bills that can then be taken… to legislators’ home states to be introduced as their own initiatives.  The private sector members of these task forces have veto power over each committee’s agenda and actions.  ALEC’s agenda, therefore, always prioritizes the interests and voices of its donors over elected lawmakers.  ALEC doesn’t publish a list of either its corporate members or its publicly-elected legislator-members.  It doesn’t allow members of the media to access its conferences.  And it doesn’t disclose its donor list.  Much of what we know about the group comes from periodic voluntary individual disclosures….  Operating as a 501(c)(3), the group claims to be an educational outfit that provides nonpartisan research to lawmakers for their ‘continuing education.’  Because it is allowed charity status under the tax code, ALEC’s donors can write off their membership dues and contributions.  Legislator members pay annual dues of $50, while according to leaked documents, corporate sponsors pay between $7,000 and $25,000 per year…  (I)t’s an organization that facilitates intimate and discreet lobbying opportunities where donors have access to a self-selecting set of willing accomplices drawn from the nation’s fifty state legislatures.”

Murphy’s article does not emphasize public school policy.  Murphy traces Walker’s promotion of ALEC legislation for privatization of prisons—the priorities of the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, and most notably his successful legislative initiatives to curtail public sector unions and eliminate “the ability of unionized public employees to bargain for wages or benefits.” “Walker has continued to spring ALEC-inspired legislation on Wisconsin’s citizens and lawmakers alike.  In March, Walker signed a so-called ‘Right to Work’ law that makes union dues voluntary for private sector workers in the state.”  He has also expanded charters and vouchers and, right in the budget, imposed a state takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Common Cause Takes on Wealthy NY School Privatizers and ALEC

Common Cause New York has just published a scathing report that, “shows how political spending around education issues has spiraled in New York State, making it virtually impossible for everyday New Yorkers not already aligned with either side of the issue to obtain objective information or have their voices heard.  While in the past, education union political strength has resulted in the adoption of measures favored by teachers, the infusion of direct campaign contributions on the part of privatizers has resulted in (proposed) education scholarship tax credit bills that significantly advantage the wealthy in ways not seen in other states….”

Who are the top ten political donors and privatizers who have made donations—between 2005-and 2014—to organizations supporting privatization of public education, expansion of charter schools, and stiff accountability for teachers tied to test scores? Common Cause identifies these donors: Michael Bloomberg who launched corporate school reform during his three terms—$9,203,195;  David Koch—$1,609,627; James Simons—$3,007,350; Paul Singer (board member of Success Academy Charters and Manhattan Institute)—$2,202,770; Daniel Loeb (chair of Success Academy Charter Board, co-founder of Students First New York, contributor to New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany)—$1,941,367; Paul Tudor Jones, II (founding member of Students First New York,  founder of Excellence Charter School, supporter of charter schools through his Robin Hood Foundation, funder of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC)—$1,547,750; Bruce Kovner (founder of School Choice Scholarship Fund, funder of Bronx Preparatory Charter School and the Brighter Choice Foundation), $1,445,100; Roger Hertog (founding chair of Foundation for Opportunity in Education, board member of StudentsFirst New York, supporter of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC—$1,445,735; Julian Robertson, Jr. (founder of PAVE charter schools)—$1,113,477; and Joel Greenblatt (Chair of Success Academy Charter School Board, co-founder Democrats for Education Reform, contributor to New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC)—$934,740.

While education unions and their allies spent $117.4 million in lobbying and non-candidate expenditures from 2005-2014, giving by advocates for privatization was only $44 million, but donations from those who favor privatization have grown rapidly since 2010 and have come from fewer than 400 wealthy individuals.  In contrast, union donations have been made by, “at least 75,000 contributions to Union PACS from well over 18,000 individuals, associated organizations and PACS.”  According to Common Cause, “Pro-privatization spending in substantial amounts is a recent phenomenon, showing exponential growth in the last five years, while union spending has remained at a fairly high constant level over the last 10 years.  In 2014, education privatization interests outspent education unions on contributions by $3.15 million.”

Here is what happened in 2014 to transform educational lobbying in the state of New York: “2014 was a game changer for privatizer spending, not only in campaign contributions, but also in lobbying.  Families for Excellent Schools (FES) yet another charity-advocacy organization created by the same hedge fund billionaires active throughout the country (which shares office space with StudentsFirst NY) registered as a lobbyist for the first time in NYS (New York State) in March, 2014.  FES’s lobbying expenditures eclipsed all other (New York donor) organizations in every industry, placing it at the top of the JCOPE annual list of lobbying entities ranked by total lobbying expenditures.  The $9,670,372 FES spent lobbying is almost $5 million more than NYSUT (New York State United Teachers) and UFT (United Federation of Teachers) combined lobbying for 2014.  What is even more incredible is that the majority of the FES lobbying spending was spent in March and April of 2014… This tidal wave of money was directly aimed at influencing how the 2014 NYS budget handled education policy, and FES added muscle to another privatizer player backed by hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner, The Foundation for Opportunity in Education…  FES has received millions of dollars in combined funding from the Walton Foundation, the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—the very same foundations funding Democrats for Education Reform, the Success Charter School network, StudentsFirst, and ALEC—to name just a few.”

Common Cause has made the exposure of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) the centerpiece of its work, and this report covers ALEC in some depth, especially in relation to the bills that Governor Andrew Cuomo is supporting that would bring tuition tax credit school vouchers to New York.  Here is how Common Cause describes ALEC: “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…. Among ALEC’s legislative portfolio are bills to privatize public schools and prisons, weaken voting rights, eviscerate environmental protections and cripple public worker unions.  Common Cause has filed a ‘whistleblower’ complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service, accusing the group of violating its tax-exempt status by operating as a lobby while claiming to be a charity.”  Common Cause’s New York report concludes that ALEC model bills including “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” and the “Parental Choice Scholarship Accountability Act” appear to be the templates for the tuition tax credit school voucher program Governor Cuomo is trying to get New York’s legislature to include in next year’s budget, currently being debated.

Common Cause concludes: “The current trend of market-based education proposals can be seen as interrelated to the ideology and policy goals that contributed to the pre-2008 deregulations of the financial industry and to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.  Using a long term, multi-pronged strategy, the self-styled ‘education reform’ organizations (whose boards are populated by the very hedge fund executives who have dominated Super PAC contributions since the Citizens United decision) are framing this issue.  They have used their wealth to access and infiltrate the policy landscape on almost every front except one: the teachers’ unions.  In an increasingly polarized debate, these camps are battling for ideological control of the future of education policy at all levels of government.”

I encourage you to read this lucid report packed with information.

States with All-Republican Government Attack the Common Good

Today 24 states have one party Republican government—a Republican governor, house of representatives and state senate. For years now, state policy has become increasingly driven by the growth of far-right, one-party state government with the added impact of big money lobbying, far-right think tanks across the states, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—the membership organization that pairs member state legislators with member corporate lobbyists to create model laws that can be introduced in any state legislature.  The mainstream media is catching on to some of this activity, and in the past couple of weeks, there have been stunning reports of far-right activity dominating state governments.

Last week, in The Ultimate In School Choice or School as a Commodity?,  Lindsey Layton and Emma Brown, education reporters for the Washington Post, published an in-depth investigation of Nevada’s new school voucher law: “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even for home schooling.  The new law, which the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed with help from the education foundation created by former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), is a breakthrough for conservatives, who call it the ultimate in school choice.  And they are working to spread it nationwide….  Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” “In January, Republicans took control of the Nevada legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929, generating the political momentum to enact the country’s most expansive voucher plan.”

Far-right foundations and think tanks are deeply involved in state politics these days. Layton and Brown quote Robert Enlow, who leads the (Milton) Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, commenting on Nevada’s new voucher program, “What this will do is continue to spread ripples across the country…. This bill shows that you can actually politically get it done.”  Patricia Levesque is also quoted. Levesque now directs the Foundation for Excellence in Education, launched in Florida in 2008 by Jeb Bush (In preparation for his announcement as a presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently resigned from the Foundation for Excellence in Education.). Levesque describes Nevada’s new super-voucher program: “This is the wave of the future. In all aspects of our life, we look for ways to customize and give individuals more control over their path and destiny…. This is a fundamental shift in how we make decisions about education.”

Layton and Brown report that 27 states since 2006 have implemented types of school vouchers—vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts.  Unlike Wisconsin and Ohio, which passed school voucher programs two decades ago, at least Nevada does require children to have been enrolled in a public school before they can qualify for a voucher.  Ohio and Wisconsin persist in awarding public vouchers to children who have always been enrolled in a parochial or private school.  Nevada is the first state to offer vouchers to all students; in most states vouchers are targeted for low-income students.

Wisconsin was an early voucher state, and its current far-right governor, Scott Walker, continues to lead the movement to attack the public: undermining public sector unions, expanding Wisconsin’s school voucher program, transforming the mission of the University of Wisconsin into job preparation, and recently trying to eliminate tenure for college professors in the state university system.  Yesterday the NY Times featured a major investigation into the money and power behind Walker’s far-right, anti-public agenda.  Walker is the nation’s ultimate symbol of the public employee who opposes government employees and government services.

Here is what Patrick Healy and Monica Davey point out in yesterday’s NY Times investigation: “Less than a week after he was elected governor of Wisconsin in 2010, Scott Walker went to Milwaukee at the invitation of his political patron, Michael W. Grebe.  Mr. Grebe was Mr. Walker’s campaign chairman.  He was also president of the Bradley Foundation, a leading source of ideas and financing for American conservatives.  And the bankers, industrialists and public intellectuals on the foundation’s board wanted to honor the state’s next governor over dinner…. While the Milwaukee-based Bradley foundation could not endorse candidates outright, it provided more than $2 million in grants to think tanks that implicitly championed Mr. Walker’s small-government platform, and $520,000 to Americans for Prosperity, a national group that held Tea Party rallies at which Mr. Walker spoke.”

The NY Times reporters continue: “More than any of his potential rivals for the White House, Mr. Walker, 47, is a product of a loose network of conservative donors, think tanks and talk radio hosts who have spent years preparing the road for a politician who could successfully present their arguments for small government to a broader constituency… The little-known governor-elect honored in Milwaukee has become something of a conservative hero, backed by wealthy donors like Charles G. and David H. Koch and revered as a leader brave enough to face down unions and their liberal supporters.” Back in 2001 and 2002,  The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee was integral in financing the campaign that that created the original school vouchers in Milwaukee, including the launch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) to promote vouchers among Wisconsin’s communities of color.  The BAEO has been operating nationally since 2002.

Today, according to yesterday’s NY Times report, the Bradley Foundation supports far-right think tanks in Wisconsin that promote Scott Walker’s anti-government policies and that work with groups like the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity and a wide network of far-right state think tanks.  In Wisconsin, “The Bradley Foundation gave to Americans for Prosperity but was more integral to financing two think tanks that… generated policy ideas and talking points that were picked up by Wisconsin’s powerful bench of right-wing talk radio hosts. In 2009, the foundation gave a $1 million grant to one of the think tanks, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, to recommend policy ideas for the next governor.  It also backed the MacIver Institute, providing one-third of its budget.”  At stinktanks.org you can learn about the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the MacIver Institute.

In their Washington Post investigation of Nevada vouchers Layton and Brown, quote the refreshing insight of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association.  She explains how state policy endorsed by the far-right is affecting public schools, the quintessential institution not of the 1 Percent, but instead of the rest of us: “I am terrified that there are more and more state legislators and state governors who have bought into this very dangerous idea that school is a commodity.  It’s not profitable for very good private schools to allow in children who are disabled, kids who don’t speak English, kids whose parents who are struggling to put food on the table.”  Bob Farrace of the National Association of Secondary School Principals is also quoted: “Funneling public funds to private schools means fewer teachers, fewer counselors, fewer supplemental services and, in general, fewer opportunities for the vast majority of kids who remain in public schools.  It really violates the public trust when policymakers place individual benefit before public good.”

Big Money Politics Distorts Public Education Policy

Before 2002, when the federal testing law No Child Left Behind inserted the federal government deeply into the way public schools operate, it wasn’t so urgently important that people think about the role of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education in making the laws and rules that demand accountability, evaluate teachers and determine whether they can keep their jobs, and even close and privatize schools in particular school districts.  But No Child Left Behind and programs created by the Obama administration—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other competitive grant programs run by the U.S. Department of Education—have changed all that.  Federal policy is deeply implicated in the creation of a punitive, accountability-based wave of policy that is shaping public schools and neighborhoods all across the country and that is also making some suburbs desirable and accelerating the exodus of families from other communities.

So why does public education policy virtually never get discussed seriously in presidential campaigns or even very much among candidates for Congress?  Why, no matter how hard many of us try to elevate educational injustice into the national political conversation, is there so little serious political conversation about significant reforms that would help children and support public education?  It isn’t as though our population has abandoned the idea of public education. Public schools continue to educate 50 million children.

Here is what Elizabeth Drew explains in a recent piece in the New York Review of Books: “Today a presidential candidate has to have two things and maybe three before making a serious run: at least one billionaire willing to spend limitless amounts on his or her campaign and a ‘Super PAC’—a supposedly independent political action committee that accepts large donations that have to be disclosed.  The third useful asset is an organization that under the tax code is supposedly ‘operated exclusively to promote social welfare.’  The relevant section of the tax code, 501(c)(4), would appear to be intended for the Sierra Club and the like, not political money.  But the IRS rules give the political groups the same protection. The contributions to these last groups have come to be called ‘dark money’ because the donors can remain secret.  The very wealthy can contribute to such dark money groups in the knowledge that people won’t know who is trying to buy a candidate.”

“We are now at the point,” writes Drew, “where, practically speaking there are no limits on how much money an individual, a corporation, or a labor union can give to a candidate for federal office (though the unions can hardly compete).”  Drew examines the emerging campaigns for the 2016 presidential election: “At this stage of the campaign, while some politicians are ostensibly still agonizing over whether or not to run, the would-be candidates are engaged in setting up the ‘independent’ fundraising groups that will support them; they aren’t even bothering to call mere millionaires.  And the idea that campaign contributions aren’t intended as a quid pro quo is fast crumbling. Fortunately for the candidates, given the way the benefits of the economy are concentrated there’s an adequate supply of billionaires….”  Candidates in both political parties have their billionaire underwriters, and we read here about several of them—Sheldon Adelson; Alice Walton; Marc Benioff; Jeffrey Katzenberg; Haim Saban; Charles and David Koch, who operate the “dark money” group, Americans for Prosperity; John Menard Jr.; Robert Mercer; Norman Braman.  Not exactly household names. While as a group these people lack experience with public education, they and others like them are actively involved in shaping the candidates’ presidential campaign strategies. With business tycoons driving politics, it shouldn’t be surprising that the language of business and privatization dominate much of the conversation about education these days.

Elizabeth Drew’s subject is national politics, but big money operates increasingly at the state level as well.

Drew mentions the 501(c)(4) Americans for Prosperity. At the state level other 501(c)(4) organizations are actively funneling big money into political advocacy, despite that in Drew’s words,  these organizations are supposedly “operated exclusively to promote social welfare.”  The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) comes to mind.  ALEC is a membership organization and a sort of matchmaking service that pairs two classes of members—the corporate lobby members and the representatives and senators from the state legislatures. ALEC’s corporate members help the legislators write so-called “model” legislation—template laws that can be adjusted and introduced from state to state. ALEC’s model bills are anti-immigrant, pro-National Rifle Association, and anti-labor.  Stand-your-ground laws come from ALEC.  ALEC’s model state bills that shape policy in education include the Parent Trigger law, laws that institute tuition-tax credits (a form of vouchers), vouchers for special education students, and states’ rating their public schools and school districts with A-F grades. Many of these laws were originally passed in Florida when Jeb Bush, an active member of ALEC, was governor (See Mercedes Schneider’s research in A Chronicle of Echoes (2014), pp. 387-402,  or here.)

Another example of a 501(c)(4) so-called “charitable” organization is Families for Excellent Schools in New York City.  Families for Excellent Schools has sponsored the “Don’t Steal Possible” television ads that promote the Success Academy Charter School Network and have opposed New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for improving the public schools. This so-called “charitable organization” has bused thousands of students and parents from NYC charter schools to Albany to lobby for the expansion of charter schools.  Families for Excellent Schools is the project of a group of New York hedge fund managers who support charter schools, particularly those in Eva Moskowitz’s charter chain.  (This post has links to coverage of the activities of Families for Excellent Schools.)

Public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent—families with the 50 million children and adolescents who fill 90,000 public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools across the country.  The moneyed interests buying American politics these days at the federal level are not worrying much about public education in era when high finance, international trade, and foreign policy fill the national news, and increasingly the interests of “big money” oppose government schools which they castigate as bureaucratic and overly regulated.  At the state level the increasingly organized power of money is unlikely to be supportive of a public system of education that was designed in simpler times to serve the needs and protect the rights of a mass of children.

Elizabeth Drew concludes: “As a nation we’ve drifted very far from our moorings of truly representational government.  Because of what has become known about the large sums of money being invested in the candidates by the super-wealthy at an early stage of the 2016 campaigns, the fact that something has gone wrong has begun to take hold.”  What to do about it all isn’t quite so clear, though Drew suggests a couple of beginning steps. I’ll let you read her article to see what she suggests.