By Ben Velderman
WASHINGTON D.C. – It took a while, but government school apologists seem to have settled on a boogeyman they can blame for the raft of K-12 reforms that have been passed by state legislatures across the nation.
It’s not the millions of parents who want to free their children from the clutches of dysfunctional public schools that are failing to prepare students for adulthood.
Nor is it the disgruntled taxpayers who are finally demanding that their ever-increasing “investments” in public education actually lead to improved student learning.
Instead, the teacher unions and their supporters on the left have decided that the education reform movement is largely the work of one group: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Last September, veteran liberal newsman Bill Moyers hosted a special that identified ALEC as the driving force behind reformers’ efforts to “dismantle” America’s public education system for the enrichment of “private corporations.”
“They have an agenda you should know about, a mission to remake America, changing the country by changing its laws, one state at a time,” Moyers warned.
Since the Moyers program aired, there’s been a concerted effort among government school apologists and other leftists to vilify ALEC members and discredit their reform agenda.
So, who is involved in this group of troublemakers? And what kind of education reform skullduggery are they up to?
ALEC officials describe their group as “a think-tank for state-based public policy issues and potential solutions.”
The group is non-profit and non-partisan, with more than 2,000 state lawmakers (both Republican and Democratic) and hundreds of private sector leaders on its paid membership rolls.
The public and private leaders routinely meet to exchange public policy ideas that promote limited government, free markets, federalism and individual liberty. This is accomplished through ALEC’s “task force” meetings for eight different public policy subject areas, including one on education.
During these meetings, lawmakers and members of the private sector debate, discuss and write “model bills” or legislation that state lawmakers can introduce – with little or no modification necessary – in state legislatures across the country.
In terms of education reform, ALEC’s education “task force” has produced model legislation that promotes charter schools, online learning options, school vouchers and parent trigger laws. Those policies all give families more control over their children’s education, which is in keeping with ALEC’s mission.
According to the group’s website, “close to 1,000 bills, based at least in part on ALEC model legislation, are introduced in the states” each year, and about 200 of them become law.
A lot of those successful bills have furthered the cause of education reform, which has developed into a broad-based, bipartisan national movement.
Members of the education establishment understand that they are losing the reform debate. That’s why they’re desperate to change the terms of the debate from the merits of each policy to the supposedly devious motives of the policymakers, some of whom are ALEC members.
And to a certain extent, they are succeeding.
The ‘sinister’ agenda of school choice
Criticism of ALEC has been percolating among leftists for many years. But that criticism boiled over into outright condemnation after the controversial shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Feb. 2012.
Central to the controversy surrounding Martin’s death is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” gun law.
When it was discovered the “Stand Your Ground” concept was shared in an ALEC task force and written into “model” legislation, critics seized on that revelation, in hopes of scandalizing the group.
In the wake of the controversy, dozens of lawmakers and more than 40 corporations dropped their ALEC memberships, according to various media reports.
ALEC’s ideological foes were emboldened by that success and acted quickly to try and pin the K-12 reform movement on ALEC, in hopes of scaring uncommitted Americans away from the cause.
Evidence of this anti-ALEC push is everywhere.
In a March 25 newspaper column, Montana state Rep. Franke Wilmer, a Democrat, linked a “6-pack of so-called ‘school choice’ bills” being considered by lawmakers to ALEC’s “sinister” and “pro-corporate” agenda.
“This session we’ve heard a lot of bills that bear a striking similarity to model bills from the legislative agenda of the corporate bill-mill American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC,” Wilmer wrote in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
“Whether a particular bill is an ALEC model bill, whether a bill’s subject is just high on the ALEC agenda, or whether a bill was written by a former ALEC member like the National Association of Charter Schools, a bad idea driven mainly by out-of-state interests is still a bad idea.”
Government school apologist Diane Ravitch used her April 2 blog to rail against “the laws and policies pushed by ALEC … and others intent on privatizing the public sector.”
Even an anti-standardized testing group is joining the chorus of ALEC critics. The Facebook-based group, Testing Is Not Teaching, promotes “a map of the states who have introduced ALEC-peddled Parent Trigger bills that support corporate welfare not parents or children!”
In case such media hit pieces don’t go far enough, a meeting of the Washington State Democrats recently featured an anti-ALEC panel discussion, featuring representatives from the Service Employees International Union, the Washington Education Association, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
That Feb. 18 meeting also featured a 30-minute talk about ALEC’s “right-wing” mission, delivered by Brendan Fischer, general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy.
Fischer not only accused ALEC of trying to “privatize public education,” but said “the attacks on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida in 2011 – that can all be traced back to ALEC,” too.
Government school defenders aren’t content with turning the acronym “ALEC” into a kind of slur that can be used against K-12 reformers. They’re pressuring the Internal Revenue Service to strip the group of its non-profit status, a move leftists believe could be a knockout punch against ALEC.
Common Cause, a group that champions left-wing causes, formally filed a complaint last year with the IRS, charging that “ALEC is flouting federal tax laws by posing as a tax-exempt charity while spending millions of dollars to lobby for hundreds of bills each year in state legislatures across the country.”
“(ALEC) tells the IRS in its tax returns that it does no lobbying, yet it exists to pass legislation that serves the economic and partisan interests of its corporate members in states all over the country,” Common Cause President Bob Edgar said, according to a press release.
Clergy VOICE, a group of progressive church ministers from Ohio, filed a similar IRS complaint against ALEC last year, reports the Missoula Independent.
A resource for citizen legislators
ALEC officials insist that creating model legislation – which private sector members help draft – does not constitute lobbying.
If an individual lawmaker chooses to introduce one of ALEC’s “model” bills in the state legislature, the bill still has to go through the entire legislative process – just like any piece of legislation – where it is subjected to numerous votes and revisions.
Despite all the bluster coming from critics, there’s no evidence ALEC lifts a finger to help one of its model bills through the legislative process.
ALEC critics counter that the group’s private sector members pay the tab for various training and social functions, which is tantamount to lobbying.
If the IRS decides to audit the group, those charges will undoubtedly be investigated thoroughly. But given that ALEC is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, it’s difficult to believe that a high-profile group that’s filled with top legal minds could have lasted so long without carefully following its strict, non-profit guidelines.
Despite the all the criticism, ALEC officials stand by their claim that the group’s model bills are only meant as public policy resources, a kind of “file cabinet” that lawmakers can make use of, if they wish.
According to ALEC’s website, “Many organizations that focus on state-level issues also offer model legislation or codes. These organizations include the American Bar Association, National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws” and other advocacy groups.
Montana state Rep. Scott Reichner, a Republican and ALEC member, explained the group’s value to “citizen legislators” like himself.
“These (ALEC) conferences you go to are informative, they educate you on what’s topical in different states so you don’t have to continually reinvent the wheel,” Reichner told Missoula.