How can we rid our states of all the education “reform” that has, over the past two decades become part of state education laws—or which legislatures friendly to corporate reform continue to introduce? All this state policy seems hopelessly locked in place despite that we are learning from experience and growing academic research that state takeovers devastate communities, for example, and a growing charter school sector will suck essential funds out of its host school district. The policies have been discredited—thanks especially to striking school teachers this year—but we can’t seem to get rid of them.
Last week Valerie Strauss examined what is happening today in the legislatures of three states where teachers walked out last spring to protest the under-funding of their schools and their salaries.
In Oklahoma, bills have been introduced to put a stop to future walkouts by teachers. One law would demand a fine in advance of $50,000 for any organized protest of more than 100 people at the state capitol. Another bill would make it illegal for school employees to strike.
Arizona’s House is considering a bill requiring that teachers be ruled by a code of ethics that bans “politics” in public schools—including teachers’ strikes. Lawmakers in Arizona are also considering a bill to ban the shutting down of school except on holidays and another prohibiting payroll deductions for union dues.
These bills are designed to get back at teachers for what lawmakers consider their unseemly aggressiveness for standing up for the needs of their schools and their own livelihoods.
In West Virginia, the punishment would affect not only teachers but also the state’s entire education system. An omnibus education bill that just passed in the West Virginia Senate would grant teachers a 5 percent raise, but at the same time radically change education policy by enabling, for the first time, privatization in the form of charter schools and a new education savings account voucher program to enable parents to carry tax dollars to pay tuition at private and religious schools or even pay for homeschooling. Senate Democrats unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to eliminate the provisions for school privatization. The bill will now be considered by the state’s house of delegates. Republican Governor Jim Justice has suggested he would veto school privatization, but the bill also includes the pay raise promised to teachers after their walkout last year, and it includes what West Virginians call a non-severability clause—which means he cannot select any parts of the bill to veto.
Reporter Brad McElhinny explains: “The bill includes a long-promised pay raise for educators. It also opens the way for charter schools and educational savings accounts that would set aside public dollars for private schooling for a certain number of participants. The bill would also let teachers bank personal days for retirement credit. It would give counties greater latitude in paying some teachers more for in-demand expertise. The bill would require teachers to sign off annually on union dues. It stipulates that if there’s a work stoppage that closes schools, those involved would not be paid. It’s all tied together with a non-severability clause, saying that if any part of the bill is struck down then it would all be void.”
Why wouldn’t lawmakers support the teachers’ actions which were widely popular— supported by parents and citizens who stood with their communities’ teachers. In every one of last year’s walkouts as well as the recent strike in Los Angeles, teachers highlighted the need for better funding to support adequate staffing of schools—smaller classes and the presence of essential professionals like counselors, school nurses, and librarians. What is motivating members of state legislatures to retaliate?
To answer this question, we must turn to The One Percent Solution (2017) by political economist Gordon Lafer for a reminder about the role of a corporate agenda across America’s statehouses: “Above all, the corporate agenda is coordinated through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)… ALEC, the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level, brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… (I)t convenes bill-drafting committees… in which ‘both corporations and legislators have a voice and a vote in shaping policy.'” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 12-13)
ALEC’s model bills are written to be adapted and copied by any state legislature in the country. There are ALEC model bills to enable the creation of charter schools, and to establish plain old vouchers, tuition tax credit vouchers, and education savings account vouchers. There are ALEC model bills to undermine public sector unions. There is even a model ALEC bill for state takeovers and other so-called school turnarounds.
Lafer continues: “Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously quipped that ‘all politics is local’—suggesting that even members of Congress are ultimately elected on the basis of their reputation for solving local problems. The past few years, however, have stood this axiom on its head. Local politics have become nationalized, with state legislation written by lobbyists, representing national and multinational corporations.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 49)
ALEC’s agenda flatly contradicts the agenda of school teachers walking out this year to demand better funding for their public schools: “ALEC’s assessment of state economic policies… completely dismisses any benefit that may be derived from public services, treating taxes as simply removing money from the public without providing any measurable value in return. ALEC ranks the economic vitality of the fifty states on the basis of their support for ‘pro-growth’ policies; of the fifteen measures used to define state rankings, two-thirds relate to limiting taxes. Among other proposals, ALEC calls for replacing graduated taxes with a flat tax and eliminating the inheritance tax, abolishing capital gains taxes, locking in the Bush tax cuts, and adopting constitutional amendments to limit future spending.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 66-67)
In their (2014) book, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass also describe the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council: “ALEC has been without question the most powerful influence on education policy in the United States during the past 3 decades. The ‘Private Chair’ of its Education Task Force is an employee of the Goldwater Institute. By the mid-2013 legislative season, 139 ALEC-authored bills affecting education had been introduced in state legislatures around the United States. Working at the state legislature level, ALEC lobbies politicians to attach free-market reforms to state education laws… ALEC hands legislators drafts of the bills it wants passed.” (50 Myths and Lies, p. 8)
The West Virginia omnibus education bill now moves to the West Virginia House of Delegates, where the House Speaker has promised careful consideration. If the House approves the Senate version, Governor Jim Justice will find himself in a difficult position. The non-severability clause included in the bill means that Justice can’t award teachers the 5 percent raise they were promised without also introducing charter schools and education savings account vouchers into West Virginia state policy.
Schoolteachers in West Virginia are once again considering a walkout to protest the terms of this bill.