This article, by Francesca Duffy, comes from the Spring 2014 edition of the AASA Policy Insider. To sign up to receive the AASA Policy Insider, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s not breaking news that big money and corporate influence go a long way in political campaigns and how our laws are shaped. The work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in state legislatures across the country is no different. The group’s impact on statehouses extends to the passing of legislation that mirrors ALEC’s free-market ideology. But how exactly has ALEC's hand in privatizing education affected school districts and school administrators' ability to offer quality student instruction at a system-wide level? The answer, unfortunately, is not clear beyond the fact that ALEC-backed initiatives, such as privately-managed charters and private school voucher programs drain public dollars from public schools. There are also not many pointed examples of local districts that we can offer at this point as having suffered a setback as a direct result of ALEC’s activities because of their secretive methods. This brief does, however, examine some of the trends to look for in legislation stemming from ALEC, how ALEC and like-minded groups get buy-in from the greater community, and what school administrators might be able to glean from ALEC's "grassroots" tactics to loosen the group's grip on their local communities.
It’s difficult to directly identify the effects of ALEC’s work on certain schools and districts because the group works hard at keeping its activities secret. Behind closed doors, efforts are made to "marry" the two membership types--business stakeholders to legislators. Legislators then act as lobbyists for corporate interests, including giants like Google and Koch Industries, in their respective statehouses, all while enjoying a tax-exempt status. When ALEC-designed bills are introduced in statehouses, the true creators of the model bill are left out.
ALEC’s positions on public education include the push for parent-trigger laws and for school vouchers (masked as "opportunity scholarships"), which promote for-profit and privately-managed charter schools. One of its model bills posted on its website, alec.org, is "The Special Needs Scholarship Program" which is described as providing "students with special needs the option to attend the public or private elementary or secondary school of their parents' choice." The intention behind the bill is essentially to lure parents into falling for the concept that these other schools are better learning environments for their children than their neighborhood public school.
A closer examination of the bill reveals that the participating private schools are not required to abide by an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), allowing the schools to escape accountability of learning benchmarks while receiving thousands of public dollars per special needs student. All of these factors go against AASA's advocacy priorities, including opposing special education vouchers and calling for all schools receiving federal funding to be subject to the same reporting and accountability requirements. Ironically, the removal of the IEP in these voucher programs actually goes against the parent empowerment that is the advertised benefit of the bill, since it does not require the parents and school to jointly plan the student’s IEP.
A 2011 article in The Nation called out Georgia's Special Needs Scholarship Program, launched in 2007, as a version of ALEC's model bill, while the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) made the same connection to Wisconsin's similar bill. The legislation in both states received opposition from disability organizations. They protested on the basis of decades of research, which shows that public schools often provide more support services for special needs students than non-public or privately-managed charters, without causing further segregation for students based on disability. Additionally, when the first achievement comparison was made in 2011 between public and voucher schools, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction found that students in the parental school choice program performed worse than or even with students in Milwaukee Public Schools. An investigation by CMD in Wisconsin also revealed that for-profit schools in Milwaukee actually sent students back to their original schools after the enrollment date, claiming said students had "behavioral problems" they could not meet. Meanwhile, these schools still received the public funds designated for the student’s attendance for the rest of the school year.
The people who suffer the most from ALEC’s hand in public education are low-income and minority students whose families are often not at an advantage to understand and unmask the true intentions behind these bills. ALEC’s outreach to these vulnerable populations will only get worse. The American City County Exchange, ALEC’s latest subgroup, aims to infiltrate deeper into the American public by going after policymakers and community members in villages, towns, cities and counties. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group also backed by the Koch brothers, which works to limit government regulation, is trying a similar grassroots approach. A recent New York Times article highlighted the group’s research tactics and determined that testimonial-style ads that tell a personal story of how a particular liberal policy or law negatively affected a citizen’s life worked the best in swaying people to listen. In the article, the issue was the Affordable Care Act, and the group launched an elaborate field effort based on those testimonials. Americans for Prosperity has also developed an infrastructure that consists of 200 paid staff members in 32 states living in communities year-round, giving the conservative voice more local ground.
Having billions of dollars at your disposal obviously makes these initiatives much more feasible. However, research has shown that the public still believes in the power of its public schools, so public schools have an advantage. A PDK/Gallup poll on the public’s attitudes toward the public schools, released last summer, found that 70 percent of Americans oppose private school vouchers, and nearly 75 percent of parents gave their schools an A or B. A district-wide ALEC-awareness campaign could help make a difference in parents’ views on the community’s schools, but only if efforts are made to personalize those messages. Why would a special-needs child be better off in the neighborhood school than the special-needs voucher school program that promises smaller classrooms and more individualized attention? Communicating the research to parents about how private charters and voucher programs often cause further segregation and don’t yield better academic results for their children, or illustrating ways that their neighborhood public school is succeeding is a good way to start combating ALEC’s PR campaign that paints a false picture of a broken public education system.
As Diane Ravitch summed up in ‘Reign of Error’, “The overwhelming majority of the American public were themselves educated in public schools and, once informed, will not readily hand these valuable public assets over to entrepreneurs, profit-making organizations, or well-intentioned amateurs. They want better neighborhood public schools, not chain-store schools that pick and choose their students. Despite the grandiose promises made by charter corporations and their political allies, the public is awakening to the threat posed by privatization.“