Feature                                                 Pages 33-37


Pushing Back the ALEC Agenda

Vigilant public education groups keep a wary eye on an aggressive agenda of state measures


Lloyd Snow, superintendent in Sand Springs, Okla., has been wary of ALEC-backed school reform legislation. 
One evening about four years ago, Superintendent Lloyd Snow was enjoying a drink in a Georgetown restaurant following a conference in Washington, D.C., when a young man nearby started telling him about an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

“He was an advocate, some kind of on-the-Hill guy,” recalls Snow, a 35-year veteran administrator who heads the 5,500-student Sand Springs School District on the suburban edge of Tulsa, Okla. “His whole conversation was about how education has got to change, and there are people working to implement policies that will force education to make transformative kinds of changes that would better serve the nation.”

Snow started asking his colleagues about ALEC, a private, conservative group consisting of legislators and business leaders, but no one had heard of it. He looked at the ALEC website, talked to state legislators back home and noticed similar bills pushing for vouchers, charter schools, student choice and privatization of K-12 education were surfacing in various state legislatures. In Oklahoma, which Snow calls the reddest state in America, some of the bills passed. There were measures to make test scores the major part of teacher evaluation and a bill requiring 3rd graders who fail a state reading exam to repeat the grade.

Common Themes

In the several years since Snow’s introduction to the formidable advocacy group, more and more superintendents, teachers and parent groups are aware of and concerned about ALEC-influenced legislation, and some are taking up a fight to hold off what they see as harmful measures. Parent advocacy teams at schools across Oklahoma “are sick of tests, underfunding and constant criticism of their kids, their teachers and their schools,” says Snow, a former AASA Governing Board member, “so the public is starting to push back.”

As ALEC bills surfaced in various legislatures in recent years, superintendents compared notes at AASA legislative advocacy events, connected the dots and realized the bills were tied to ALEC.

“These themes kept coming up so regularly among state legislatures,” says Noelle M. Ellerson, associate executive director for policy and advocacy for AASA, The School Superintendents Association. The bills might be tweaked one way or another, she adds, but they often shared common language from the model bill crafted by ALEC.

Superintendents say ALEC proposals call for costly additional testing, higher student and teacher performance, and private school voucher programs that drain public resources at a time when schools are operating on less funding in the aftermath of the Great Recession. They see a distinct anti-public-education strand running through the ALEC agenda.

ALEC legislation is widely perceived to weaken the nation’s public schools, not support and strengthen them, according to AASA leadership and public policy staff.

“It is not so much about improving education and making a better life for children so much as it is privatizing education and turning it into a for-profit business,” says David K. Pennington, who assumed the AASA presidency in July and is superintendent of the 5,400-student Ponca City Public Schools in north-central Oklahoma.

One ALEC-related bill passed in Oklahoma provides vouchers to special education students to attend private school, he says. “The private school (that special education students) attend are not required to provide services.” (See related story, page 36.)

ALEC is more visible because it has become more aggressive and better funded in recent years. However, some reports indicate corporate support has dropped lately, as ALEC falls under greater scrutiny by more news organizations. The Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit focused on exposing corporate and government propaganda in the media, has devoted an entire website called ALEC Exposed to news coverage, blogs and research reports that probe the ALEC operation.

A Generation Old

ALEC was founded in 1973 as a nonprofit think tank to promote free-market ideas, limited government and federalism. The organization’s members include more than 2,000 state legislators and more than 500 private corporation and nonprofit leaders. The council is governed by 24 state legislators on its board and guided by its Private Enterprise Advisory Council. ALEC members meet for an annual conference and comprise various task forces, in which they draft model bills that legislators can take back to their states.

The council promotes privatization and choice, including vouchers for private education, charter schools and online schools. It opposes collective bargaining. It also issues an annual report card on the states, grading each on factors such as whether they use high-quality academic standards, identify good and bad teachers, and offer taxpayer-funded private school choice options, online learning and low-regulated home schooling.

ALEC representatives did not respond to several e-mails and telephone calls requesting an interview with School Administrator magazine.

While it does not disclose its contributors, ALEC does post its federal income tax exemption Form 990 on its website. In 2011-12, the organization’s revenue was $8.4 million. ALEC spent $6.9 million on programs, including $1 million to retain and recruit members, $1.6 million for its national conference, $3.5 million for its policy task forces and $389,307 for the salary of its executive director, Ron Scheberle.

ALEC also proposes legislation on health, electoral voting, taxes, gun ownership rights, prisons, pension reform and other issues. ALEC’s model bills are readily available on its website, including a page specific to education proposals (www.alec.org/task-forces/education. The education policies cover a wide variety of topics, from vouchers and assessment to privatization and accountability. They include the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act, which would give children from low- and middle-income families state-funded scholarships, or vouchers, and the option to spend them “on the private elementary or secondary school of their parents’ choice.” And there’s the Charter School Growth with Quality Act, which would establish a state public charter school commission to serve as an independent statewide charter authorizer.


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Diverting Funds

ALEC’s push for spending public education dollars on vouchers, charters and online virtual schools would fatten the bottom line of for-profit businesses, says Thomas G. Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “Frankly, we are sick and tired of it,” he says. “A lot of people are trying to make money and undermine public education, and it is not because they care about kids, but because they care about the bottom line.”

Benny L. Gooden has taken a lead role on federal education advocacy for AASA during his 28 years as superintendent in the 14,000-student Fort Smith, Ark., schools, one of the state’s largest urban districts. He first took notice of ALEC about four years ago.

“We have bills that have ALEC written all over them,” says Gooden, who served as AASA president in 2012-13 and has made dozens of visits to Capitol Hill over the years.

In recent years, Arkansas has seen the legislature take up proposals to give parents more choice among nonpublic options, establish vouchers and create state commissions for charter schools. Most of the ALEC-influenced efforts did not pass, but one that allows per-student state funding to flow to children in virtual charter schools did become state law, Gooden says, though “we were able to cap the number of students statewide.”

Pushing Back

School leaders, teachers’ unions and parent groups at national, state and local levels are organizing to fight ALEC bills. In Oklahoma, the legislation setting up the high-stakes reading examination for 3rd graders went into effect earlier this year, meaning nearly 8,000 pupils were on the verge of repeating 3rd grade because they failed the test. That spurred parents to act.

In Sand Springs, as in many school districts, they formed a legislative action team and began lobbying legislators. Parents applied so much pressure in the state capital that legislators passed a bill allowing 3rd graders to advance, even though they fell short of the reading test cutoff. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed the bill, but in May the legislature overrode her veto.

“We fight every ALEC bill that comes through,” says Snow, the Sand Springs superintendent. “We are trying to regain the narrative. You do that by getting parents involved.”

The Oklahoma Association of School Administrators and other education groups lobbied against other ALEC bills. They were able to kill an ALEC proposal in committee that would have created a nine-member commission with authority to bypass local school boards and charter schools anywhere in the state. Pennington, superintendent of Ponca City, is among 12 education leaders named in a lawsuit filed with the state challenging the voucher law for special-needs students.

School leader and teacher education groups in Arkansas have thwarted most ALEC-inspired legislation, including at least two bills that would have established vouchers, over the last year, Gooden says.

Even in a blue state, such as Oregon, which has a Democratic governor and Democrats in control of the House and Senate, ALEC bills emerge from time to time, forcing public education groups to remain vigilant, says Chuck Bennett, government relations director for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. But, he adds, “Those kinds of issues just don’t get much traction in Oregon and haven’t even in Republican-controlled legislatures.”

A National Movement

Public education advocates are challenging ALEC at the national level, too. Education historian Diane Ravitch is among them. On her blog this spring, she blasted the ALEC proposal to flunk 3rd graders who fail the reading test.

“What this has to do with free-market capitalism is beyond my understanding,” she writes. “It is punitive towards little children, putting more faith in a test than in teachers’ judgment.”

National education groups, including AASA and NSBA, also are taking action. AASA is assembling information to share with members on what ALEC model bills would do along with tips to help administrators respond to the proposed legislation, Ellerson says. The school boards association has launched a national publicity campaign called Stand up 4 Public Schools featuring celebrities such as Salman Khan of the Khan Academy and professional basketball’s Magic Johnson. The campaign challenges public education foes, such as ALEC, Gentzel says.

“We have not done a good enough job over the years of mobilizing people,” he adds.

As AASA president, Pennington says he will speak out regularly against ALEC’s cookie-cutter legislative bills and other groups’ initiatives that hurt public education. And as AASA celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2015, it is a good time to remember how far public education has come, he says. “Sometimes we forget that public education, that what we have today, was a part of a struggle. ... Just as we had to fight for public schools to come into existence, we are going to have to fight for public school survival today.”

Bill Graves is a freelance education writer in Beaverton, Ore. E-mail: bill​graves1@frontier.com






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