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.”

October Charter School Investigations—Tales of Fraud, Mismanagement, and Mis-Education

There is so much news from place to place about the financial and management scandals in particular charter schools and charter management organizations that it is hard to keep track. Schools are taking public money—and too frequently finding a way to make a profit—while failing to serve the children they enroll or neglecting to enroll particular groups of children with special needs.  All of this increases the burden on public schools and misspends tax dollars, thereby undermining the public good.  Here are just three examples that have surfaced during mid-October.

North Carolina ProPublica just published a major investigation of Baker Mitchell’s charters in North Carolina including Douglass Academy in Wilmington.  After he came to North Carolina in 1997, according to ProPublica, “Mitchell quickly connected with the state’s big political players, including conservative Kingmaker Art Pope.  By 2002, he was sitting alongside Pope on the board of the John Locke Foundation…. part of the State Policy Network, a Koch-supported group of think tanks whose agenda includes steering public funds away from traditional schools and toward charters, vouchers and tax credits for homeschoolers.”

Mitchell then established the same kind of racket that William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has going in Ohio: he created a private, for-profit company owned by himself to provide all services for his charter schools. “The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell.  It functions as the schools’ administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff.  It handles most of the bookkeeping.  The treasurer of the non-profit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell’s management company.  The two organizations even share a bank account.”  Back in 2001 the Internal Revenue Service denied Mitchell’s management company  non-profit status, for, according to IRS, “Mr. Mitchell… controls both your management company and your lessor.  He has dual loyalties to you and his private, for-profit companies.  This is a clear conflict of interest for him.”  However, Mitchell’s board (on which he was serving actively as a member) protested and the IRS eventually capitulated based on promises by the board—promises never fulfilled, according to ProPublica.

Mitchell has also become involved in advocacy for privatization of education in North Carolina.  In 2011, he joined the state’s Charter School Advisory Council that helped eliminate the cap on the growth of charter schools.  In 2013 he was instrumental in helping push a bill through the legislature to remove oversight and regulation of charters and to provide a tax exemption “for landlords who, like Mitchell, rent property to charter schools.”

Adelanto, California: Bill Raden, a reporter for California’s Capital & Main, has investigated the first school in the nation to have undergone a “Parent Trigger” conversion.  The investigation tracks the operation of Desert Trails Elementary School during its first year of operation after it was seized by parents through a petition and subsequently charterized.  The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) disseminated model “parent trigger” legislation across the state legislatures.  According to Raden, “At least 25 states have considered parent trigger legislation and seven of them have enacted some version of the law, including Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas,” in addition to California.

Rapid turnover of teachers has plagued Desert Trails. Although its executive director has been paid a salary of $200,000, teachers are reported by Raden to be earning only $3,300 per month.  “During its first year, teachers say, the charter lost a principal (Don Wilkinson) and a director (Ron Griffin)—both before the Christmas break—and its vice principal, six classroom teachers and its behavioral specialist.  In addition only nine of Desert Trails’ first-year teacher roster—or 33 percent—are returnees this year.”  Several teachers or former teachers who agreed to be interviewed tell of personally spending hundreds of dollars for basic classroom supplies.  They explain that drinking fountains were turned off to prevent their freezing at night during the high-desert winter when the heat was turned off to save money.

While Desert Trails employed a special education coordinator and teacher, teachers say they were advised by Debra Tarver, the current executive director, not to tell parents about their right to services for children with special needs.  Raden describes instances when parents of children with special behavioral needs were advised that the school “was not a suitable environment to meet their needs,” while school administrators denied that the students had been suspended or expelled.

Teachers report they were subject to a succession of curriculum changes as the school’s administrators turned over.  All report, however,  that intense pressure grew throughout the year to focus on language arts and math, the two tested subjects, and to cut out social studies, science, and physical education.  Raising test scores became an obsession.

Columbus, Ohio: Catherine Candinsky and Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch examined real estate profit-making by Imagine Schools, a national charter management organization.  Candinsky and Siegel report that rent—paid to a real estate subsidiary of its national sponsor, Imagine Schools Inc.—is the highest expense for Columbus Primary Academy.  The school will pay rent of $700,000 this year to SchoolHouse Finance, a national Imagine-owned subsidiary, at the same time its expenditures for salaries and benefits will be only $614,000. “SchoolHouse buys the buildings, resells them typically for two or three times the purchase price, and then leases the facility from the new owner so it can rent the space back to Imagine.”  Policy Matters Ohio has highlighted that this arrangement yields profits for Imagine Schools “both at resale and as it collects rent.”

Real estate profit-making by Imagine Schools  is not merely an Ohio phenomenon: “The upshot is that the complex deals are diverting hundreds of thousands of public dollars to one of the nation’s largest charter-school operators, Imagine Schools Inc., and its affiliates.  Imagine operates 67 charter schools in 11 states and the District of Columbia.  At least three states and Washington, D.C, are investigating Imagine for real-estate maneuvers like those in Ohio, and a fourth state, Missouri, already has shut down several Imagine schools.”

As such investigations continue to turn up violations of the public trust, one wonders whether any kind of oversight is likely to be imposed by state legislatures.  Candinsky and Siegel conclude their Columbus Dispatch expose on Imagine Schools with a reflection on this very issue.  They describe the power of financial contributions for shaping public policy, in this case the political investments by Ohio’s two largest for-profit charter operators:  “David Brennan of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, have combined to give $2.25 million since 2009 to state political parties, lawmakers and statewide officeholders, mostly Republicans.  That includes a combined $320,000 to the House GOP caucus and Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina; $223,000 to Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, and his caucus; and $71,000 to (Governor) Kasich.  The likely top two leaders of the House starting next year got a combined $104,000 since 2009.”

70 People Brave Frigid Weather to Raise Concerns about School Choice

Wednesday was so cold in greater Cleveland that schools were closed across the region, but by 7:00 PM, 70 people had arrived at our high school cafeteria whose doors had been opened for the second week of our community conversation about Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error.  (You can read about our first session here.)

A retired, and much beloved, high school guidance counselor driving in from rural Newbury reported that as he made his way to our meeting, his car radio blared an ad from Ohio’s most notorious on-line academy, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT): “Schools across Ohio are closed due to the weather, but our school is always open.  At ECOT your child will never miss school because of cold weather.”

“Can you imagine,” asked a school administrator, “what people would say if we spent part of our school district’s budget for radio advertising?  People would say we were wasting the taxpayers’ money, but nobody ever says that about ECOT!”

After the meeting, as people bundled up to go home, I asked several of them how they felt about the conversation they had been having.  Had talking about the book caused them to think any differently about challenges for public education?  Had any particular concern developed for them as they were reading and discussing?  Here is some of what people told me:

  • “I know something about the use of data in education. It used to be that we consulted data positively to inform our teaching, but now we seem to collect data with a negative purpose.  All schools have assets that benefit the children, but because test scores focus our attention on the deficits, today we think of schools that don’t post great test scores as lacking assets.  That just isn’t true, but we haven’t learned how to measure and document what our schools really contribute to the lives of our children.”
  • “I was so naive about charter schools.  The moment I began to read about the investment of foundations and venture funds and the potential investment opportunities just in the real estate, I was shocked.  Why have we permitted all these powerful people to influence public education so much?  The unfairness of it!  I have realized we are in a battle today to save public education.”
  • “When you think of a charter school from the point of view of the individual child and family, it can seem to make sense.  But when you think about the system, that’s where it all falls apart.  It seems to me that traditional public schools are in danger of becoming schools of last resort for the poorest children or those with special needs.  This is dividing our society more and more.  Public schools as a unifying force will be gone.”
  • “The focus on competition in school choice plans really struck me.  I have always thought the whole purpose of public education in our society has been to serve every child.  That is what the statement, “leave no child behind,” was always supposed to mean.  Our goal today has changed because choice always creates losers as well as winners.  There is no way to make sure that all choices are good choices.”
  • “Competition works in a whole lot of different ways here.  They have a system where school districts compete for their ratings based on test scores—you know, Excellent all the way down to Academic Watch.  But in our discussion last week we learned that standardized test scores are influenced a lot by family income.  So the rich, outer suburbs are all rated Excellent while the cities are rated Academic Watch.  It’s a set-up.”
  • “I hadn’t put all this together.  I have had a sense that bad things are going on, but these meetings have helped me put the pieces together. The awareness seems so essential.”

By coincidence the chapters that had been assigned for our Cleveland Heights conversation this week—dubbed School Choice Week by its supporters—were all about the privatization of public education.  We read chapters about Michelle Rhee, charter schools, on-line academies, the Parent Trigger, vouchers, and the historic importance of democratic governance of education. Our convening 70 people on a frigid January night to learn more about these topics during School Choice Week definitely has to be considered an act of protest.