How ALEC and Promoters of Privatization Are Helping Legislators Rip Off State Governments

In her story on Iowa’s tuition tax credit program in yesterday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein explains: “Iowa is one of 31 states where legislators have proposed creating or expanding school choice programs this year, without Washington even lifting a finger.”

Knowing that the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a great fan of school privatization through vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts and the expansion of unregulated charter schools, we might wonder how and why all this school choice expansion Goldstein describes is happening without any assistance at all from DeVos and Congress.

Goldstein mentions one of the primary factors, the American Legislative Exchange Council: “In 2013 and 2014, the most recent years for which financial disclosures are available, several organizations associated with Ms. DeVos invested over $7 million in school choice lobbying efforts in states now considering new bills.  Americans for Prosperity, the activist group founded by the Koch brothers, and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council are also pushing private school choice in statehouses across the country.”

One cannot possibly review too often the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in state politics. If your state legislature is one of the 31 states now considering some form of school vouchers, your representatives are probably considering one of ALEC’s model laws.  ALEC is what is known as a bill mill, a membership organization that pairs member state legislators with corporate member lobbyists and representatives of far-right advocacy organizations promoting school privatization; these people collaborate in writing model bills that can then be introduced by ALEC-members in the legislative chambers of the 50 states. Members of ALEC’s Education Committee have cooked up a number of model bills to choose from: the Special Needs Scholarship 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.  The outrageous irony about ALEC is that, despite a long-running legal challenge from Common Cause, it is still considered by the IRS to be an educational, not a lobbying, organization.

Goldstein reminds us that vouchers don’t really serve very many students across the United States, despite that they drain a lot of money from states’ public education budgets: “The number of American students benefiting from private school programs now is relatively small. Estimates by EdChoice, the organization founded by Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist who first introduced the idea of vouchers, put the number at 446,000 this year, out of a total school-age population of 56 million. Three million attend public charter schools, which Ms DeVos also has championed and which generally do not accept vouchers.” (This blog has disputed proponents of charters who dub the schools, “public.” Although charter schools are publicly funded, they are always privately operated and have been considered in several court challenges as private contractors.  Because charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free, students at charter schools have no need to carry a tuition voucher of any kind.)

Goldstein profiles a parent, Mary Kakayo in Des Moines and her participation in Iowa’s already-operating, tuition tax credit program.  Ms. Kakayo would also like to benefit from the newer education savings account program now being considered by Iowa’s legislature: “Tuition credit scholarships like the one that helps pay tuition for Ms. Kakayo’s daughter…. allow individuals and corporations to receive credit on their state income taxes for donations to nonprofits that provide tuition aid to students. Iowa’s program, currently used by 11,000 students, has income limits—$73,000 for a family of four—and the average scholarship award is only $1,583.” We learn that the Kakayos personally pay tuition of $85 per month on top of their tuition tax credit.

Goldstein continues: “Iowa is one of the states where legislators this year proposed education savings accounts, an even more expansive benefit. The accounts (would) give parents state money each year—under one proposal, in the form of a $5,000 debit card—that they can use on private school tuition, home schooling costs, online education or tutoring.  Ms. Kakayo said she would welcome further tuition support from the state, which would allow her to save money for college for Alma and her younger sister….  Under one proposal, after a student graduates from high school, any money left in the account could be used for tuition at in-state colleges.”

Goldstein describes the concerns of opponents of the tuition tax credit program and the proposal being considered for education savings accounts: “Opponents have called the programs a giveaway to religious institutions. All but five of the 140 schools currently participating in the (Iowa) program are Catholic or Protestant, and the Diocese of Des Moines is among those lobbying for the expansion… Opponents also point out that private schools are allowed to reject some of the neediest students, like those who have severe disabilities or are lagging behind their grade level.”

Goldstein examines the financial implications for Iowa’s public schools: “Under the most far-reaching proposal, the new education savings accounts would be available to every child in Iowa without income caps, and include the over 40,000 who are already enrolled in private schools or home schooling.”  She adds: “School districts and some legislators also were concerned that if parents of privately educated students suddenly had access to thousands of dollars in state education money, public schools could be significantly affected financially.”  So far no bill being considered in Iowa has moved far enough for a vote in either of Iowa’s legislative chambers.

To see what might happen if Iowa were to expand these programs, one need only look to Indiana. In late December Emma Brown of the Washington Post reported:  “Indiana’s legislature and then-governor Mitch Daniels first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year.” After Mike  Pence was elected governor in 2012, “Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle-class families became eligible. When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly.” Chalkbeat Indiana reported two weeks ago that the number of students who have never attended public school, that is children who are already enrolled in religious or private schools, who are now using vouchers has risen to 54.6 percent. “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017…  To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year. Under the most recent draft of the state’s next two-year budget, Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019….”

Launching vouchers or tax credits or education savings accounts as part of a state’s education plan is a zero-sum game. Vouchers and tax credits are always a way to redirect some of a state’s public school budget to a privatized alternative. It has never happened that legislators have increased taxes significantly to cover a new voucher program and at the same time protect a state’s investment in the public schools. School privatization undermines the public system even as a parallel system of schools is created. Indiana demonstrates clearly just how vouchers and tax credits are likely to swallow a state public school budget to pay private school tuition for families who have never even considered enrolling their children in public schools.

Fraud and corruption have not been the major problem with vouchers and tuition tax credit programs. The financial scandals have been more prevalent in the charter school sector where money is to be made by the for-profit management companies—profits that can be invested through political contributions that block sufficient oversight by state government to prevent self-dealing that violates the public interest.  Vouchers have primarily provided tuition  to religious schools, which have been less involved in overt ripoffs of tax dollars. However, in the NY Times earlier this month, Kevin Carey profiled a problem in one state where vouchers have involved self dealing and enormous profits:

“Steve Yarbrough is one of the most powerful men in Arizona. As president of the State Senate, he has promoted a range of conservative policies, including a tuition tax credit system that provides over $100 million per year to finance vouchers for private schools.. But Mr. Yarbrough is not just a champion of tax credit vouchers. He also profits from them personally… State tax credit voucher programs have grown rapidly in recent years. The number of students receiving them increased to 256,000 this year from about 50,000 in 2005. Arizona has one of the oldest and largest programs… The Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO) is one of the state’s largest voucher-granting groups. From 2010 to 2014… the group received $72.9 million in donations, all of which were ultimately financed by the state. Arizona law allows the group to keep 10 percent of those donations to pay for overhead. In 2014, the group used that money to pay its executive director $125,000. His name?  Steve Yarbrough… Yet the group doesn’t do all the work involved with accepting donations and handing out vouchers. It outsources data entry, computer hardware, customer service, information processing, award notifications and related personnel expenses to a private for-profit company called HY Processing.  The group paid HY Processing $636,000 in 2014, and millions of dollars in total over the last decade. The owner of HY Processing? Steve Yarbrough, along with his wife, Linda, and another couple.  (The “Y” in “HY Processing stands for ‘Yarbrough.’)”

Carey explains: “(I)t’s not clear that states can be relied upon to prevent self-dealing. Mr. Yarbrough’s personal financial interest in tax credit vouchers first received wide attention in 2009…. Yet in the years since, Mr. Yarbrough has continued to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars from overhead funds.”  And as president of the Arizona senate, “He also supported the expansion of the tax-credit system.”

Last week when the PBS NewsHour profiled Indiana’s school voucher program, Dr. Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne’s public school superintendent warned: “You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.” “I’m worried that people aren’t alarmed. Public education is the backbone of this country.”

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.

The Guardian Investigates Far-Right State Policy Network

Yesterday The Guardian published an in-depth investigation of the workings and funding of a network of far-right state think-tanks that make up the State Policy Network (SPN), State Conservative Groups Plan US-Wide Assault on Education, Health and Tax.  “In partnership with the Texas Observer and the Portland Press Herald in Maine, the Guardian is publishing SPN’s summary of all the proposals to give readers and news outlets full and fair access to state-by-state conservative plans that could have significant impact throughout the US, and to allow the public to reach its own conclusions about whether these activities comply with the spirit of non-profit tax-exempt charities.”

(In mid-November, here, I wrote about the Center for Media and Democracy’s recently launched campaign to expose SPN, stinktanks.org.)

The Guardian describes the State Policy Network as a sister organization to the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC.  “SPN’s president, Tracie Sharp, told the Guardian that ‘as a pro-freedom network of thinktanks, we focus on issues like workplace freedom, education reform, and individual choice in healthcare: backbone issues of a free people and a free society.'”

Despite that the majority of the state affiliates of the State Policy Network are 501 (C) (3) organizations, according to The Guardian, the State Policy Network makes grants to its member think-tanks for projects “aimed at changing state laws and policies, or (that) refer to ‘advancing model legislation’ and ‘candidate briefings’, in ways that arguably cross the line into lobbying.”

The proposals submitted by specific state think-tanks for funding from the State Policy Network’s war chest include attacks on public employee pensions, campaigns to eliminate or reduce taxes, promotion of school vouchers, attacks on worker and union rights, and opposition to Medicaid.

The Guardian describes a proposal from the Massachusetts Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) that requested $38,825 to reduce regulation of greenhouse gases. “BHI appeared to have already arrived at its conclusions in advance, admitting from the outset that the aim of the research was to arm opponents of cap-and-trade with data for their arguments, and to weaken or destroy the initiative.”

“Watchdogs that monitor the work of SPN and other conservative networks in the US said that the centralised coordination of state-level campaigns showed a significant attempt to build local activism into a nationwide movement.”

Stunning New Report and Website Expose Connected State-by-State Web of Privatizers

As an advocate for public policy, I believe it is more important to know more about what I am for than about what I am against.  Let me begin by naming what I am for: public schools—universally available, publicly funded, and accountable to the public.  I also believe that our most important priority in the United States, as far as public education goes, is to improve—not punish—the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.  These are the places where many children live in neighborhoods where extreme poverty is concentrated.

But knowing about the forces on the other side of this highly polarized debate is also important, and this week a new website was launched to help with the task of learning more about the privatizers: stinktanks.org, a joint project of the Center for Media and Democracy (which also houses the valuable ALECExposed site) and ProgressNow.  The goal of stinktanks.org is to expose the State Policy Network (SPN), a tightly connected web of think tanks across the states that are being funded by far-right ideologues with the purpose of promoting privatization and unfettered free markets, and undermining government, regulation and the public good.

While these organizations have ties with the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and while they are actively promoting the same agenda, they are lesser known.  If you live in Ohio, you may have heard of the Buckeye Institute; if you live in Pennsylvania, you may know about the Commonwealth Foundation, or if you live in Michigan perhaps you have learned about the Mackinac Center, but you likely don’t realize how funding for all of these groups is connected to the same philanthropists, and how their interests are being pursued state by state by state. The new website features an interactive map of the states.  By clicking on any state, you’ll access a one page description of that state’s SPN member’s agenda and its funders. You will also find a more detailed report about a number of the state think tanks.

For example, if you have been paying attention to Michigan, you know that destroying workers’ rights, privatizing public schools, blocking healthcare, destroying public pensions, opposing minimum wage laws, and lowering corporate taxes is being pushed by Michigan’s governor and many in the legislature.  Perhaps you won’t be surprised then to discover that the Mackinac Center devotes itself to promoting this very agenda.

This week, to launch the new “stink tanks campaign,” The Center for Media and Democracy and AlecExposed.org released a stunning national report, Exposed: The State Policy Network—The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government.

Here you will learn more about the extensive role of the Koch Brothers and others in the secretive world of far-right funding.  “The largest known funders behind SPN and its member think tanks are two closely related funds—DonorTrust and Donors Capital Fund… They are what are called ‘donor-advised funds,’ which means that the fund creates separate accounts for individual donors, and the donors then recommend disbursements from the accounts to different non-profits.  It cloaks the identity of the original mystery donors or makes it impossible to connect donors with recipients…. For example, a relatively unknown Koch family foundation called the Knowledge and Progress Fund gave $4.5 million to DonorsTrust between 2007 and 2010, but what organizations received that funding from Donors is unknown.” (p. 18)

None of these state organizations focuses solely on privatizing education; they all pursue a complex agenda.  You will learn, however, that several of these groups have representatives on ALEC’s Education Task Force: the State Policy Network itself, the Goldwater Institute (AZ), the Pacific Research Institute (CA), the Independence Institute (CO), the James Madison Institute (FL), the Illinois Policy Institute, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs, the Mackinac Center (MI), the John Locke Foundation (NC), and the Freedom Foundation ( MN).

The report describes the goal of the State Policy Network as creating an echo chamber across the states: “While SPN is a national organization with 63 affiliates and over 100 associate members, it remains a closely connected network.  It is not uncommon for think tank members to share board members, “scholars,” or staffers, nor is it uncommon for the think tanks to share research materials, coordinating their agenda and tailoring national research to fit into state-related politics.” (p. 9)

The report wonders how groups like like ALEC and these state advocacy organizations continue to operate as tax-exempt, 501C3 non-profits:  “Acknowledging the group’s political power, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin called the SPN member Idaho Freedom Foundation a ‘do’ tank.  Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of SPN member think tank the Goldwater Institute, told the National Review, ‘We’re in the business of applied policy.’ Applied policy appears to translate to changing state laws. Although most do not register lobbyists, many SPN members advance legislation through ALEC and outside of ALEC” (p. 13)