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ALEC Fights the Mainstream in a

Blue State

BY BILL GRAVES

The American Legislative Exchange Council faces more of an uphill battle passing legislation in a blue state such as Oregon, where the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature are controlled by Democrats. But that doesn’t keep it from trying and occasionally making headway.

Most ALEC-influenced bills die quietly in committees. Last year, for example, state Sen. Betsy Close, R-Albany, introduced two bills with ALEC qualities that provide tax credits for contributions to private schools or private student tuition. One would have allowed Oregon parents to claim up to $1,000 per child in income tax credits. The other proposed amending the Oregon Constitution to allow businesses and individuals to get tax credits for contributions to religion-based schools. Each measure died quietly in committee after a public hearing.

Four years ago, ALEC found an unlikely partner in the Oregon chapter of Stand for Children, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving education quality and equity. Stand for Children enlisted a bipartisan group of legislators to introduce the Student Success Through Innovation Act. The bill would have allowed a school or group of schools to create an innovation plan granting control over their budgets, exemption from collective-bargaining agreements and freedom to use performance pay. Even charter schools in Oregon do not enjoy so much autonomy.

The Oregon Education Association was able to show whole paragraphs of the act were lifted from an ALEC model, the Innovation Schools and School Districts Act.

While the bill did not advance, Oregon has adopted some education policies that fit ALEC’s agenda. The state permits a limited number of charter schools subject to the state’s collective-bargaining laws and virtual online charter schools, such as the 2,500-student Oregon Connections Academy run by a nonprofit corporation. The teachers’ union fought successfully for legislation capping the online schools’ enrollment at 2009 levels.

Oregon also passed a version of an ALEC model bill called the Common Sense in Medicating Students Act, which bars educators from recommending drugs such as Ritalin to parents whose children have learning disabilities.

Professional education organizations, including AASA’s state affiliate the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, do not take Oregon’s progressive leanings for granted, so they tend to watch ALEC’s moves carefully. Union lobbyists track every model bill that ALEC develops and compare it to the policies of the Oregon Education Investment Board, the governing board for Oregon’s public schools. The association found only seven of 57 model ALEC education bills had any elements that aligned with investment board policies.