Cashing in on Kids: 139 ALEC Bills in 2013 Promote For-Profit Education Model

Despite widespread public opposition to the education privatization agenda, at least 139 bills or state budget provisions reflecting American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) education bills have been introduced in 43 states and the District of Columbia in just the first six months of 2013, according to an analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy, publishers of ALECexposed.org. Thirty-one have become law.

News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch has called public education a "a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed."

But this "transformation" of public education -- from an institution that serves the public into one that serves private for-profit interests -- has been in progress for decades, thanks in large part to ALEC.

ALEC boasts on the "history" section of its website that it first started promoting "such 'radical' ideas as a [educational] voucher system" in 1983 -- the same year as the Reagan administration's "Nation At Risk" report -- taking up ideas first articulated decades earlier by ALEC supporter Milton Friedman.

In 1990, Milwaukee was the first city in the nation to implement a school voucher program, under then-governor (and ALEC alum) Tommy Thompson. ALEC quickly embraced the legislation, and that same year offered model bills based on the Wisconsin plan. For-profit schools in Wisconsin now receive up to $6,442 per voucher student, and by the end of the next school year taxpayers in the state will have transferred an estimated $1.8 billion to for-profit, religious, and online schools. The "pricetag" for students in other states is even higher.

In the years since, programs to divert taxpayer money from public to private schools have spread across the country. In the 2012-2013 school year, it is estimated that nearly 246,000 students will participate in various iterations of so-called "choice" programs in 16 states and the District of Columbia -- draining the public school system of critically-needed funds, and in some cases covering private school tuition for students whose parents are able and willing to pay. 

But promised improvements in educational outcomes have not followed. "If vouchers are designed to create better educational outcomes, research has not borne out that result," says Julie Mead, chair of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin. "If vouchers are such a great idea," after twenty years in effect, "they would have borne fruit by now." 

The ALEC education agenda also fits into the organization's broader attack on unions: by lowering teacher certification standards and funnelling public money to non-unionized private schools, ALEC undermines teachers unions, which guarantee fair wages and working conditions and are a major political force that have traditionally backed the Democratic Party.

ALEC Education Bills Undermine Free, Universal Public Education

ALEC-influenced bills introduced in 2013 include legislation to:

  • Create or expand taxpayer-funded voucher programs, using bills such as the "Parental Choice Scholarship Act" (introduced in three states). Under many state constitutions, the use of public dollars to fund religious institutions has been rejected on separation-of-powers grounds, but the ALEC Great Schools Tax Credit Act, introduced in ten states in 2013, bypasses state constitutional provisions and offers a form of private school tuition tax credits that funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools with even less public accountability than with regular vouchers.
  • Carve-out vouchers for students with special needs, regardless of family income, through the "Special Needs Scholarship Program Act" (introduced in twelve states), which sends vulnerable children to for-profit schools not bound by federal and state legal requirements to meet a student's special needs, as public schools must. A proposal in Wisconsin would have allocated up to $14,658 to a for-profit school for each special needs student.
  • Send taxpayer dollars to unaccountable online school providers through the "Virtual Schools Act," introduced in three states, where a single teacher remotely teaches a "class" of hundreds of isolated students working from home. The low overhead for virtual schools certainly raises company profits, but it is a model few educators think is a appropriate for young children.
  • Offer teaching credentials to individuals with subject-matter experience but no education background with the Alternative Certification Act, introduced in seven states. The bill is part of ALEC's ongoing effort to undermine unionized workers and promote a race to the bottom in wages and benefits for American workers.
  • Require that educators "teach the controversy" when it comes to topics like climate change -- where the only disagreement is political, not scientific -- through the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act, introduced in five states.
  • Create opportunities to privatize public schools or fire teachers and principals via referendum with the controversial Parent Trigger Act (glorified in the flop film "Won't Back Down"), introduced in twelve states. First passed in California, a modified Parent Trigger bill was brought to ALEC in 2010 by the Illinois-based Heartland Institute, which is perhaps best known for controversial billboards comparing people who believe in climate change to mass murderers like the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
  • Create an appointed, state-level charter school authorizing board through the Next Generation Charter Schools Act, introduced in seven states, which effectively shields charters from democratic accountability. The legislation "would wrest control from school boards, and likewise from the community that elects those school boards," Mead says, since it takes away their power to authorize charters in the community.

ALEC Corporations Reap the Rewards

Some of the for-profit corporations profiting from the ALEC Education privatization agenda include:

"Amplify," the newly-created education division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, parent company of Fox News. News Corp is on the ALEC Education Task Force. In 2010, News Corp hired former New York City chancellor Joel Klein to run its education division, which includes the for-profit education company formerly known as Wireless Generation. The firm has big plans for a specialized "Amplify Tablet" that would provide lesson plans, textbooks and testing to cash-in on new "Common Core" required state standards.

K12 Inc., the nation's largest provider of online charter schools, where low-paid teachers manage as many as 250 students at a time and communicate with their pupils only through email and phone. The corporation, whose CEO Ron Packard received $5 million in total compensation in 2011, is on the ALEC Education Task Force and its lobbyist Lisa Gillis has Chaired ALEC's Special Needs Subcommittee. According to a report in the New York Times, students in K12, Inc. schools often perform very poorly, and some K12 teachers claim that they have been encouraged to pass failing students so that the company can receive more reimbursement from states. K12 receives an average of between $5,500 and $6,000 for every student on its rosters -- the same amount that would be spent for students attending a brick-and-mortar school, despite K12 not having to pay for cafeteria, gyms, busing, or heat and air conditioning -- and much of K12's profits are spent on advertising targeted at increasing enrollment, rather than on investments in education. At K12's Agora Cyber Charter School, which produces more than 10% of the company's revenue, nearly 60% of students are behind grade level in math, nearly 50% are behind in reading, and a third do not graduate on time.

Corinthian Colleges is a for-profit college chain that operates campuses under names like Everest, Heald, and WyoTech, in addition to offering degrees online. It has become notorious for aggressive recruiting practices and leaving students unprepared for the job market and saddled with massive student loan debts. In Milwaukee, for example, where a Corinthian Everest campus was financed with $11 million in city bonds, just 25% of students found jobs and over half dropped out; the campus closed two years after it opened. Nationally, over 40 percent of Corinthian's students default on their loans, and only 60% of students complete their coursework. In June, Corinthian disclosed that it is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and has been subpoenaed by California's Attorney General for its recruiting practices and financial responsibility.

Ideological Interests Lift the ALEC Agenda

An array of right-wing nonprofits also promote the school privatization agenda in ALEC.

The 501(c)(4) American Federation for Children and its 501(c)(3) wing the Alliance for Children, for example, have brought an array of privatization bills to ALEC and promoted the legislation across the country. The groups were organized and are funded by the billionaire DeVos family (heirs to the Amway fortune); Richard DeVos has received the ALEC "Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award." AFC's top lobbyist is disgraced former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who was convicted of three felonies for misuse of his office for political purposes and banned from the state Capitol for five years (though the charges were later reversed and dropped as part of a plea agreement). Jensen represents the organization on the ALEC Education Task Force and has brought AFC bills to ALEC for adoption as "model" legislation. AFC spent at least $7 million electing privatization-friendly state legislators across the country in 2012, but reported far less to state election authorities.

In addition to the DeVos family foundations, the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation is one of the top school privatization funders in the country, spending over $31 million over the past eleven years promoting "school choice" nationwide, according to One Wisconsin Now; for decades, Bradley has also been a major ALEC funder. The foundation has over $600 million in assets and is headed by Michael Grebe, Scott Walker's campaign co-chair.

Before Milwaukee became the first city in the nation to implement a school voucher program, Bradley bankrolled the groups that laid the groundwork. When the plan was challenged in Wisconsin courts, Bradley funded its legal defense, which included hiring Kenneth Starr -- later known for pursuing Bill Clinton over Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky -- to represent the state.

Average Americans Pay the Price

Originally promoted as a program for Milwaukee's low-income students of color to have access to private education, the initial voucher program gained support from some African-American leaders and was pushed by State Representative Polly Williams, a Milwaukee Democrat. But last session, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker broadened vouchers to families with higher incomes, and in the 2013-2015 budget further expanded the program. "They have hijacked the program," Williams says. "As soon as the doors open for the low income children, they're trampled by the high income," she said. "Now the upper crust have taken over."

The laws have been sold to poor and minority communities as a way to close achievement gaps, but there is little evidence of success: in Wisconsin, data shows that students receiving vouchers perform no better, and in some cases worse than those attending public schools. Cash-for-kids programs have shown similar results in school districts across the country.

Reports have also emerged in Milwaukee and elsewhere of for-profit schools registering students, keeping them in class until just after the date where enrollment is counted for funding purposes, and then sending them back to public schools. In many cases those students have special needs the voucher schools claimed they could not satisfy.

Six-year-old Trinity Fitzer, who has anxiety and gastrointentinal problems, was attending Milwaukee's Northwestern Catholic School in the 2011-2012 term on a voucher. After a few months, Northwestern Catholic informed Trinity's mother that she was being "withdrawn" from the school for "continuing behavioral issues." The school claimed that "withdrawal is the decision of the parent," but Trinity's mother said it was not her decision and "she didn't have an option."

Jane Audette, a social worker at Hawthorne Elementary, a public school in Milwaukee, said the school receives several "cast-off" students every year from private schools like Northwestern Catholic. "What has happened over and over with Milwaukee's Northwest Catholic is they will tell a parent, 'Your child needs more than we can give your child, so we suggest you go down the street to Hawthorne.’"

And vouchers, testing, and school privatization have in many cases been offered as a substitute for grappling with the persistent structural issues that perpetuate achievement gaps.

“What has been forced on our communities is not reform at all: they are mediocre interventions," said Jitu Brown, an education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization who spoke at Netroots Nation in June. "The only reason that mediocrity is accepted is because of the race of the children being served.“

Privatizing Schools and Other Government Services

Brown puts the education reforms in the context of broader community disinvestment and austerity measures: cutting social programs and closing schools, police stations, hospitals, and other institutions that serve as commmunity anchors, while cherry picking and selling off the better institutions to private players.

And ALEC has played a key role in promoting this agenda. ALEC has sought to shrink the size of goverment by starving states of revenue, voucherizing critical programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and privatizing all aspects of government, from education to foster care to pensions to prisons.

When the ALEC's cash-for-kids model is put before the voters, it is resoundingly rejected. In 27 statewide referenda on the topic, voters rejected vouchers on average 2-1. But as long as ALEC "models" continue to garner bipartisan support facilitated by corporate campaign contributions or are slipped into state budgets in the dead of night -- ALEC will have continued success with the "transformation" of the American educational system into a profit-driven enterprise.

The ALEC Education agenda not only "converts a public good into something private," says Mead, but private schools "don’t have the same responsibility [as public schools] to serve everybody, which diminishes public access, oversight and accountability."

"There is that saying, 'democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.' The public school system is the same way," Mead says. "It has problems, and can be better, but has served us pretty well for 150 years."

View the full list of 2013 ALEC education bills here.

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