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.”

Bombshell Report Exposes Federal Failure to Oversee Charters

I was once in a meeting where Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared: “Good charters are part of the solution. Bad charters are part of the problem.” Unfortunately, Secretary Duncan has done nothing to increase federal oversight for the purpose of addressing what he called “the problem.”  A new report from the Center for Media and Democracy, Charter School Black Hole, exposes the U.S. Department of Education’s total abrogation of responsibility for oversight of an education sector to which it has granted $3.7 billion since 1995. The federal Charter School Program (CSP) awards grants to state departments of education to encourage charter school expansion.

Who’s in charge?  Really nobody: “The system insulates each element from accountability for what actually happens in charters.” The federal government has relinquished oversight to the states receiving federal grants, states which have then turned over regulation to  charter school authorizers in what the Center for Media and Democracy calls, “a classic example of ‘industry capture’ of the agencies charged with oversight by the industry they are tasked with overseeing.” “This is due in part to the way laws governing charters have been built by proponents, favoring ‘flexibility’ over rules…  Charters are policed—if they are policed much at all—mainly by charter proponents….”  “Theoretically, the charters are held ‘accountable’ to charter authorizers.  However, enforcement of standards by charter authorizers appears lax in many instances, and states have said they lack legal authority under statutes that created the charter option to demand compliance.”  “As a consequence, the public does not know how much federal seed money each charter has received and does not know how it has really been spent…” “Unlike truly public schools, which have to account for prospective and past spending in public budgets provided to democratically elected school boards, charter spending is largely a black hole.”

The Center for Media and Democracy gathered the information in the report through a series of formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the U.S. Department of Education as well as requests to the state education offices (SEAs) that administer federal Charter School Program (CSP) grants.  First CMD asked the U.S. Department of Education for a list of all charter schools that have received money under the Charter School Program. Only after repeated requests and many months did the Department of Education comply: “Finally, in late summer, the agency gave CMD a list of charter schools that had received CSP SEA money in recent years.  But, due to the poor quality of the format, CMD had to manually transcribe the list.”

CMD explains that the application process for federal charter school funding has never been public; hearings are neither held to share who is making the federal proposal nor to examine what is being proposed.  No one has the opportunity to testify publicly on the quality of the application being made by a state agency or a charter management company before the federal grant application is submitted or the grant awarded. “Without calling for broader public input, federal charter school bureaucrats accepted the word of state charter proponents that their charter programs had adequate controls for performance and against fraud and waste.”  “In the current structure, the U.S. Department of Education hears only from proponents of the charter school grant application and in this closed loop—unsurprisingly—it approves money to a state like Ohio based on formal submissions that praise it, in spite of numerous failures.”

The Center for Media and Democracy examines the role of federal Charter School Program grants in eleven states plus the District of Columbia: California, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Texas, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Wisconsin.  In coming weeks this blog will return to the information in the state reports.  Here is just one example— a taste of what CMD discovered as it surfaced information about poor oversight of federal charter school grants in Michigan: “(C)harter schools in Michigan received $34,997,658 between 2010-15 under the CSP (federal Charter School Program) umbrella, after the state was awarded $43.9 million under the CSP expansion in 2010.  (This discrepancy is based on appropriations amounts and cycles and other differentials.)  Almost half (139) of the charters in Michigan were subsidized in part by federal tax dollars, in the past five years… Since the inception of charters in the state (back into the 1990s), more than 100 charters have closed (108).  Many of them have closed due to lack of ‘academic viability’ (poor results) while others have closed due to lack of ‘financial viability’ (such as inadequate enrollment) and some for both or other failings… Another area of concern is that four out of every five Michigan charter schools are really being run by for-profit management companies…. Perhaps one of the most surprising takeaways from the federal information available about how taxpayer money is being spent or wasted is the existence of ‘ghost’ schools that never opened.  Out of the charters that were approved for CSP funds by the Michigan Department of Education in 2011 and 2012, twenty-five never opened…  The organizations behind these proposed charter schools were approved for a total of nearly $3.7 million in federal tax funds in ‘pre-planning’ and ‘planning grants…”

Ohio is another of the states covered in the report: “Ohio has been awarded a substantial amount in federal CSP SEA grants: more than $195 million between 2004 and 2015.”  At the end of September 2015—in grants awarded for 2016 or over the upcoming five years—the U.S. Department of Education awarded over $157 million to seven states, the District of Columbia, and eleven charter school projects across the country for the expansion of charter schools.  Ohio was granted the most of any state—$71 million—even as the state was locked in a political battle about establishing even the most minimal oversight of charter schools.  (Subsequent to the receipt of the federal grant, the Ohio legislature did pass a modest bill to begin correcting some of the most egregious problems in the states out-of-control charter sector.)  Aware of the state’s unregulated charter schools, in July of 2015, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown introduced a bill for federal regulation of charter schools; some of the proposed bill’s provisions were folded into the Senate’s proposal for the reauthorization of the federal education law.  (Very different Senate and House versions of a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act have passed, but a joint version has not yet emerged from a conference committee.)

And last week Senator Brown stepped up again to provide leadership by demanding federal oversight.  Senator Brown joined Ohio Representative Tim Ryan to introduce a bicameral Congressional bill to regulate charters  through increased “accountablity, transparency, and community involvement.” The legislation would impose Congressional oversight over a process that until now has been hidden inside the Department of Education.  The proposed Charter School Accountability Act would require independent financial audits of charter schools and reports on each school’s program, mission, school discipline policy, student attrition rates, staff turnover, and data reflecting admission and recruitment policies and student retention.  The proposed bill would require states applying for federal grants to set charter school performance standards and to collect data on school closures and performance reviews.  It would also require state legislatures to establish state “authority to suspend or revoke a charter schools’ s authorization based on poor performance or violating policies,” and it would demand that states establish regulations to prevent conflicts of interest and implement fiduciary policies for charter school boards, treasurers, and staff.  The bill would also require states to seek parental and community involvement as charter schools are planned.

The new report from the Center for Media and Democracy confirms the pressing need for the kind of federal oversight proposed by Senator Brown and Representative Ryan. The federal government’s protracted failure to oversee it’s $3.7 billion investment in charter schools has been among the most egregious problems in Arne Duncan’s Department of Education.  While Duncan has been in charge for seven years as Secretary of Education, he has made no attempt to regulate charter schools; his clear priority has been innovation rather than oversight.  This blog has covered Duncan’s failure to establish adequate regulation of the out-of-control charter sector here, here, here, and here.

Thousands of Charter Schools Close: Rip Off Taxpayers, Steal Students’ Future

Last week I received a press release about a new report: Center for Media and Democracy Publishes Full List of 2,500 Closed Charter Schools.  What to do with this information?  What does it really mean?  Isn’t the threat of possible school closure really the point of school choice driven by the theory of the marketplace?  Good schools will open and stay open but the bad ones will go out of business when parents vote with their feet.  Isn’t this the very mechanism by which the marketplace is supposed to hold schools accountable?

I opened the link to the Center for Media and Democracy’s website to learn the significance of the new report, which announced: “Among other things, this data reveal that millions and millions of federal tax dollars went to ‘ghost’ schools that never even opened to students… (N)early 2,500 charter schools have shuttered between 2001 and 2013, affecting 288,000 American children enrolled in primary and secondary schools…. For example, in the 2011-2012 school year, charter school students ran two and a half times the risk of having their education disrupted by a school closing and suffering academic setbacks as a result of closure.  Dislocated students are less likely to graduate.  In 2014, Matthew F. Larsen with the Department of Economics at Tulane University looked at high school closures in Milwaukee, almost all of which were charter schools, and he concluded that closures decreased ‘high school graduation rates by nearly 10%.  He found that the effects persist ‘even if the students attend a better quality school after closure.'”… Then there are the charter schools that never opened despite tax money from a federal program to help more entities apply to create even more charters.  Drilling down into the data of just one state in just one school year, 25 charter schools (or, really, just prospective charter schools) awarded grants in 2011-12 never opened in Michigan.  The non-profit groups behind these were granted a total of $3.7 million in federal tax money in implementation and planning grants, and they also received at least $1.7 million in state tax dollars.  These charter schools exist only on paper, in this case on grant notification forms and in databases of state expenditures.”

Back in May, the Center for Media and Democracy released another in-depth report that demonstrates the failure of the marketplace as a regulatory mechanism for schools.  In fact CMD’s report in May raises serious concerns about lack of regulation in the charter sector: “CMD’s review of appropriations reveals that the federal government has spent a staggering sum, $3.3 billion, of taxpayer money creating and expanding the charter school industry over the past two decades, but it has done so without requiring the most basic transparency in who ultimately receives the funds and what those tax dollars are being used for, especially in contrast to the public information about truly public schools.  Although some charters have a veneer of being alternative ‘public schools,’ many of them are run by for-profit companies or outsource key operations to for-profit firms, and are exempt from any local democratic control.  These billions have been funneled to charters through a patchwork of state laws often designed to prevent government agencies from exercising control over how that money is spent by charters or to exempt charters from rules that apply to traditional public schools…. This lack of oversight is a recipe for disaster for far too many American school children, and for taxpayers, when large chunks of the money end up either missing in action or in corporate charter school coffers.”

Just last week, as the Center for Media and Democracy was releasing its list of 2,500 closed charters, Doug Livingston, the education reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, published the story of the disfunction and ultimate closure of the Next Frontier Academy, “an urban agriculture-based charter school” located in West Akron. Livingston’s report explains why this particular school closure wasn’t just an example of the marketplace regulating charters through accountability.

Livingston explains, “As the first day of school drew near this year, Unique Foxworth wondered whether her new school would believe that she had ever attended her old one.  She knew she did.  As a 14-year-old, she awoke at 5 a.m. each morning to catch a bus outside her East Akron home by 6:15 a.m.  At the central transfer station downtown, she would board another shuttle bound for Copley Road in West Akron.  She finished the 90-minute trip with a short walk to the Next Frontier Academy…. ‘It would always be the same three people that were there on time,’ said Foxworth, now 15.  ‘One was a teacher.  The other two were students.  I was one of them.'”

Reporting on Ohio charter schools, Livingston continues: “Now, like 200 other charters, the school has closed, adding to the $1 billion in taxpayer funding given to failed charter schools.  More charter schools closed last year than at any point in the industry’s 17-year history in Ohio.  For Foxworth, the closure meant finding a new school with only a few days notice.  Her mother said teachers—not administrators—told her of the school’s financial woes and likely closure.  As Foxworth searched for a new education, Akron Public Schools sifted through records for more than 60 students who attended the school.  None contained complete attendance counts or test scores, or adequate proof that students ever went there.”

Livingston’s report is thorough, with shocking details categorized by the story’s subtitles:

  • Broken promise: “The vocational charter school promised to teach agriculture to city students.  The state provided Next Frontier nearly $2,000 in additional funding per pupil to make it work.”
  • Chaotic closing: “The records weren’t easily obtained.  The school’s sponsor, Tri-County Educational Service Center in Wooster, said it sent staff to take them when the charter school refused to hand them over.  But the records were little more than cover letters….”
  • A violent place: “A teenage girl told police months later that an older male student ‘sexually assaulted her and held her against the wall’ inside the school.  Police recorded numerous thefts and fights at the school, which employed about five teachers and two administrators… Often parents, not the school, notified the police.”
  • Mismanaged money: “The Ohio Attorney General’s Office filed a worker’s compensation lawsuit in June.  Teachers were told to wait days before cashing paychecks as investors deposited money to keep the school’s bank account positive.  Summit County officials say $14,398.83 in taxes is owed on the property.”
  • Follow the money: “There’s a complicated paper trail that connects (Cleveland entrepreneur Michael) Hoffman’s company and the private landlord to the publicly funded school…. It starts with $125 in March 2012 when Hoffman paid the state to create the charter school.  A month later, he did the same to launch his company, Blue Lake Educational Management—a ‘limited liability company’ that shields Hoffman or school founder John Hairston from personal liability.”
  • Any assets?  “If there were desks or computers or anything of value, the sponsor would be responsible for selling the assets, paying bills and returning the balance to taxpayers.  The management company says the money is gone and no assets remain.”
  • Academic shortcomings:  “Ohio Department of Education records indicate staff lacked credentials or taught outside their areas of expertise…. Principal Tarik West, for example, held no administrative license, only a certificate as a substitute gym teacher.”

In June, this blog covered an effort by the national organizations that make up the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools—American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Educational Justice, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Service Employees International Union, the submission of a formal letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan demanding that the federal government begin regulating charter schools.  The alliance cited formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The OIG’s 2012 audit, the members of the Alliance explain, discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.  The State Education Agencies that lack capacity to manage the programs are the 50 state departments of education.  In its letter, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools demanded that the federal government establish a moratorium on the awarding of federal funds to charter schools until federal oversight is improved.

The Washington Post reporter Lyndsey Layton reported earlier this week, however, that on Monday, the U.S. Department of Education announced grants of $157 million to expand charter schools.  Layton adds, “Asked how taxpayers can be assured that federal dollars will be spent properly, (Arne) Duncan said it was largely up to states and the public agencies that approve charter schools… The department sent a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter to states emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars.  Duncan also said that his agency plans for the first time to publicly report some data, including the names of some schools that have received federal grants and their performance statistics.”

Hucksterism In Education Exposed

I was serving on a panel at an evening event last week about the growth of privatization of education here in Ohio, when someone asked, “Why do parents grab at the chance to send their children to these schools?  Most of them don’t do nearly as well academically as public schools.”

People speculated about the lure of the freedom to choose and the conversation wandered a bit.  But finally came a comment that stopped many of us:  “Public schools can’t advertise, but all the voucher and charter schools advertise all the time, especially the cyber charters—Ohio Virtual Academy (K12) and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.”

Hucksterism in education is the subject of a new piece by Ruth Conniff: The Sharks are Circling Our Public Schools.  Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive, a journal that champions the public good including a current project known as Public School ShakedownThe Progressive has recently merged with the Center for Media and Democracy which has persistently exposed the far right attack on the public good, including ALEC Exposed.

Conniff describes robocalls promoting Wisconsin vouchers.  A woman’s voice describes, “free tuition to send your child to a private or religious school.”  “We at School Choice Wisconsin are proud to pay for this call, because we want the very best for you and your child.” The calls, writes Conniff, are coming in the midst of the application process for Wisconsin’s new  statewide voucher program.

Conniff reports that School Choice Wisconsin is an arm of the American Education Reform Council (funded by John Walton) and the far right Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee.  This spring Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ PAC, has also been sponsoring pro-voucher events across Wisconsin.

Cyber charters are advertising across Wisconsin right now, too.  Conniff describes postcards (with gorgeous photos of adolescents at scho0l) being mailed during Wisconsin’s e-school open enrollment season.  She notes that cyber schools do not, as pictured, educate students with their peers in a brick and mortar building, and, “According to the state’s school report cards for the 2012-2013 academic year, half of the children in virtual schools were attending one that was not meeting performance expectations.”

Conniff concludes: “So as parents are sorting the mail and checking messages and hearing about all these great choices you can make—free tuition! flexible! individualized learning! laptop provided!—keep in mind that you are paying for these businesses with the money that used to sustain our public schools.  They are still performing better than all of these new, alternative options.”

Check out Public School Shakedown and ALEC Exposed and the other great investigative journalism at The Progressive. What is happening in public education in Wisconsin is very likely also relevant in your state.  Vouchers.  Charters.  The impact of the American Legislative Exchange Council on your legislature.  Public School Shakedown even has a new project: Teach for America Truth Squad.

K-12 Inc., Largest Education Management Organization, Pays CEO $19 Million from Our Taxes

This week the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado published the fourteenth edition of its report, Profiles of For-Profit and Nonprofit Education Management Organizations.  According to NEPC’s press release, “The real growth in the for-profit sector is with companies that operate virtual schools.  The growth of virtual schools, which is fueled by millions in advertising dollars is astounding because of the sketchy academic results reported by the schools that operate online.”  According to NEPC, K-12 Inc., the largest for-profit Education Management Organization, now enrolls 87,091 students in the 57 virtual schools it operates across the states.

It is therefore appropriate that the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) recently launched a new series of profiles, “America’s Highest Paid Government Workers,” on its OutsourcingAmericaExposed.org web page with the story of Ron Packard, the CEO of K-12 Inc.  CMD’s “highest paid government workers” are people who work for private companies and contractors but whose salaries are paid with our tax dollars.  CMD reports: “K-12 Inc. is a publicly traded, for-profit, online education company headquartered in Herndon, Virginia.” “In 2013, K-12 Inc. took in $848.2 million from its businesses, with $730.8 million coming from its ‘managed public schools’ with 86 percent of the company’s profits from tax dollars.  According to CMD, Packard made $19 million from tax dollars paid to K-12 Inc. in 2013.

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)

“Public Schools Shakedown” Website Exposes Privatizers

The forces undermining public education don’t really take the trouble to publicize what they are doing.  It is all very quiet and very well funded. And if, in polite conversation, you mention the likes of ALEC—or Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education—or the role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, people may look at you as though you are spouting conspiracy theories.

But we must summon the courage to mention what is going on, and we need to get ourselves informed enough to be confident about the facts.  The Progressive, a Madison, Wisconsin magazine, helps us with a new project this autumn,  Public Schools Shakedown. Take a look at the in-depth background resources on this website.

Written by Brendan Fischer, the general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC’s Schoolhouse Rock is one of the best pieces I know about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  This is the secretive organization that pairs corporate lobbyists and state legislators to develop “model” laws that can be introduced in any state legislature. Fischer reports: “at least 139 bills or budget provisions reflecting ALEC education bills have been introduced in forty-three states and the District of Columbia in just the first six months of 2013.”  According to Fischer, “ALEC might best be described as a ‘corporate bill mill’ that helps conservative state legislators become a vessel for advancing special interest legislation.”  Fischer covers the agenda promoted by ALEC’s bills: vouchers, tuition tax credits for private education, the authorization of charter schools by appointed—not democratically elected—state agencies, parent trigger laws that permit parents through a petition process to take over their school and exit from the public school district, expansion of on-line blended learning in classrooms with bigger classes per teacher, and alternative certification programs.

Check out, Funding “Education Reform”: The Big Three Foundations.  This in-depth article and info-graphic demonstrate how the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations have supported privatization across the states.  Jonathan Pelto, a Connecticut writer explains, “The foundations themselves explain their goals and funding strategies through innocuous rhetoric.  For example, the Gates Foundation opines that: ‘We invest in programs with a common aim to strengthen the connection between teacher and student. To that end, we work with educators, policymakers, parents, and communities to expand and accelerate successful programs and identify innovative new solutions that can help unlock students’ potential.’  But the actual agenda becomes much clearer when one examines their actual list of grantees, which includes most of the country’s charter school management organizations, education reform “think tanks,” and advocacy organizations.”

Barbara Minor’s excellent  The Voucher Boondoggle in Wisconsin may at first seem specific to that state.  However, other states including Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana have followed Wisconsin’s lead by robbing the state public education budget for allocations to support private school tuition.  Minor is the wonderful writer who recently published the authoritative history of Milwaukee’s schools: Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City.  You will also find an excellent info-graphic, Meet the Bullies, that diagrams the influence of particular philanthropists who have been underwriting advocacy for vouchers and privatization.  Many of them are very likely active in your state.