The Smart and Shadowy ALEC

At a press conference yesterday at the Oklahoma State Capital, Representatives Jason Nelson and Tom Newell unveiled proposed legislation (HB3398) to expand the use of public dollars to support parent educational choice in Oklahoma. The voucher legislation, cleverly retooled as “Education Savings Accounts,” would allow parents earning up to twice the federal poverty level to take a portion of their child’s state aid and redirect it to the private or sectarian school of their choice.

This legislation is the predictable and incremental next step in the privatization of Oklahoma public schools, following the 2010 passage of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for students with special needs, also sponsored by Representative Nelson.

Unbeknownst to many in attendance at the conference, there was another entity on stage with Representatives Nelson and Newell. Preferring to lurk behind the curtains and out of sight, the real source of this legislation was watching from a safe distance but was unquestionably present in the shadows. As Nelson and Newell recited the entity’s well-scripted and rehearsed talking points, the force in the shadows smiled. After seeing that all was going to plan, the entity mused to itself, “Oklahoma-check; on to the next state.”

No, this is not the start to a bad horror story.  .  . but it might be.

The entity I am referring to goes by the innocuous-sounding acronym ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. From their website, ALEC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization headquartered in Washington D.C., and defines itself as “a nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who share a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.” It provides a constructive forum for state legislators and private sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical, state-level public policy issues.

An integral part of ALEC’s influence comes from the creation of so-called model legislation. Legislators and policy makers from across the nation contribute through involvement in various task forces and summits. According to ALEC, each state legislator and their constituents then decide which solutions are best for them and their states. As ALEC Treasurer Rep. Linda Upmeyer (IA) has said, model policies are like “a file cabinet. If something can help my constituents, I can take what I need; and if it doesn’t help, I leave it alone.”

The 35 active members of ALEC in the Oklahoma Senate and House (all Republicans) go to this “file cabinet” quite often. Representatives Nelson and Newell may claim credit for this Education Savings Voucher legislation, but they clearly made extensive use of ALEC’s model legislation in drafting this bill.

Take a look for yourself.

Click HERE for the text of Nelson and Newell’s legislation (HB3398)

Now check out ALEC’s Model Legislation of the same name.

A statement in the end notes of the ALEC document caught my attention and clearly indicates that they are not to be ignored: “If legislators are concerned about the hostility the program would face from the existing Department of Public Instruction, they may choose to consider other capable departments, create a new small agency or contract with a private nonprofit organization to administer the program.”

In other words, if you happen to have a democrat as your State Superintendent, legislators should simply find a workaround by assigning education policy to another state organization or non-profit organization. This is precisely what is occurring in Indiana after Democrat Gloria Ritz defeated Republican Tony Bennett for the Superintendent post. The same type of maneuvering would likely occur in Oklahoma if a new Superintendent tries to stand in the way of ALEC’s agenda. This is scary stuff!

I want to note that I do not necessarily think that everything that ALEC does or stands for is nefarious or evil. Like many think tanks, there is likely some value to ALEC and similar organizations— from all points on the political spectrum— which collect public and private input and research, analyze policy, and recommend legislation that seek to improve the lives of Americans.

Whatever its initial intent, ALEC has swelled to the point where they now impact legislation affecting nearly every aspect of our lives. The various task forces include: Civil Justice; Commerce; Communication and Technology; Education; Energy, Environment, and Agriculture; Health and Human Services; International Relations; and Tax and Fiscal Policy.

ALEC is not just a lobby or a front group; it is much more powerful than that. ALEC is a corporate bill mill.

Through ALEC, corporations hand state legislators their wish lists to benefit their bottom line. Corporations fund almost all of ALEC’s operations. They pay for a seat on ALEC task forces where corporate lobbyists and special interest reps vote with elected officials to approve “model” bills. In exchange, loyal legislators’ reelection campaigns always seem to be well-funded and thus the cycle continues.

Despite what Nelson and Newell claim, there is no significant grassroots lobbying effort for this legislation. The legislation will actually provide limited benefits to many poor families in Oklahoma, simply because there are very few alternate options that can compete with the value provided by public schools.  The representatives are advocating not for the people of Oklahoma, but for the national conservative and privatization movement being funded by billionaire philanthropists and corporations.

As I said in the beginning, this bill simply represents the next step along the slippery slope towards vouchers. If this legislation passes and withstands the inevitable court challenges, we can expect even more from ALEC.

As he will tell you himself, Representative Nelson is an advocate for complete and absolute school choice. In future years, we can expect legislation to address parents of gifted and talented students and other such subgroups. With each step, we get closer to the final goal of “vouchers for all.”

Since schools will then be able to select those students who they allow in the door and, more importantly, exclude those they do not want; the end result of this policy will be the resegregation of schools. Public schools will be left primarily with those students that none of the other schools want, because they are too expensive or too much trouble. The kids from poverty and broken homes—the ones with parents who either don’t care or lack the capacity to explore other options will be left on their own. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” will grow and the great equalizer of American society—the public school system, will have been destroyed.

While I am on the topic of ALEC, I encourage you to take a look at ALEC’s Report Card on American Education. This 120-page report can be downloaded as a pdf or viewed on Kindle or iBooks.

In the preface, the authors state that, “The Report Card highlights education policies states have enacted and provides a road map to best practices, allowing legislators to learn from each other’s education reforms. This year, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin writes an inspirational forward citing her state’s education reforms in teacher quality, school accountability, and literacy.”

For some reason, I did not find Mary’s comments equally inspiring.

To give you a little more flavor of the tone of this book, on page 98, the authors make this claim: “U.S. public education, in short, is a high spending and underachieving mess.” Then, on page 103, they provide a glimpse of where they would like to go with this comment: “The boldest state reform efforts to date should be viewed as the floor for future efforts, not the ceiling it serves as today.” In Appendix D, they go into detail on what else they would like to see happen in education policy in the next few years.

Finally, while reviewing the state-by-state “report cards,” I was amused to find that Oklahoma, despite ranking 43rd in the nation on student NAEP scores, earned the authors’ highest grade, a B+, along with Arizona and Indiana. Massachusetts, the state with the top NAEP scores in both math and reading, finished in the middle of the pack in 23rd with a C!

Here are the individual cards for Oklahoma and Massachusetts:

I threw together this chart to compare the grades of both states. The first letter grade is for Oklahoma and the second is Massachusetts.

See if this makes any sense to you.

Teacher Quality and Policies: (OK / MA)
Overall Grade B+ / C
Delivering Well Prepared Teachers C / C+
Expanding the Teaching Pool F / C
Identifying Effective Teachers F / D-
Retaining Effective Teachers D+ / D+
Exiting Ineffective Teachers D- / D

Massachusetts earns a higher grade than Oklahoma for each criteria, yet earns a “C” compared to our “B+”.  And how exactly do two F’s, two D’s and a C translate to a B+? I needed this kind of grader when I took Differential Equations in college!

The research is replete with such silliness, along with a score of deceptive statistics. Of course, they refer to Florida as a model; claiming Florida has exceeded the national education improvement rate by approximately 50% since the early 1990’s. They boast about Florida’s achievement despite the fact that their students’ scores on the nationally-normed NAEP and ACT are significantly below the national leaders.

This is like saying that a contestant on “The Biggest Loser” who drops from 400 to 300 pounds and loses 25% of his body weight is somehow healthier than another individual who drops from 180 to 175 pounds because he only lost 2.5% of his body weight. In other words, Florida’s statistics reflect less about how “healthy” their schools are now, and more about how unhealthy they were then.

ALEC is smart, capable, and powerful. They are behind almost every piece of conservative legislation being passed in our country today. And most Americans have no idea they exist. It is up to us to spread the word!

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