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Executive Perspective                                     Page 48

 

A Public School Threat Coming

Your Way

 

BY DANIEL A. DOMENECH

 Daniel Domenech

My friends, if you think there is an ongoing attack on public education, you are not being paranoid, you are correct. If you have never heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council, then pay attention because ALEC is coming to your community.

ALEC, established in 1973, only recently has become a threat to public education. The group’s original intent was to create a conservative think tank at the state level. Today ALEC’s membership includes more than 2,000 state legislators and more than 200 corporations.

To give credit where it’s due, ALEC’s strategy is brilliant. Legislators pay a $50 annual fee while corporate members pay anywhere from $7,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The organization’s front provides a forum for state legislators to jointly discuss potential legislation in their states, but in reality the corporate members have the opportunity to greatly influence legislation in ways favorable to their interests.

The New York Times, in an article (“Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobby”) by Mike McIntire on April 21, 2012, provides excellent insights into how ALEC operates. (See related coverage in School Administrator’s September issue.)

McIntire writes that “ALEC adopted model legislation, based on a Texas law, addressing the public disclosure of chemicals in drilling fluids used to extract natural gas through … fracking.”

On face value, this looks to be a public service, enabling consumers to uncover potential drinking-water contaminants. However, according to McIntire, “a close reading of the bill … reveals loopholes that would allow energy companies to withhold the names of certain fluid contents … . [T]the bill was sponsored within ALEC by ExxonMobil, one of the largest practitioners of fracking.”

Vulnerable to Attack
ALEC today is a huge proponent of school choice and vouchers. The billions of stimulus dollars that flowed into education during the recession captured the attention of corporate America. The public dollars became low-hanging fruit that could fill the coffers of private, for-profit entities. Assisting the attack were federal legislation and administrative rules favoring privately managed charter schools, vouchers and choice.

The attack on public education, at a time when our schools are the best they have ever been, is intended to sway elected officials and parents to abandon public schools and opt for privately managed charters and online schools operating with public dollars. When these options fail, as they generally do, students return to the public schools in hopes of reversing the damage done while the operators walk away with their profits.

Current ALEC model bills include the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act, which would allow all students to attend the public or nonpublic school of their choice. The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act creates a scholarship program for students with special needs to attend the public or nonpublic school of their choice. The Next Generation Charter Schools Act allows groups of citizens to obtain charters from the state to create and operate innovative schools, but it would exempt them from many of the state laws and regulations governing public schools.

These are just examples of the hundreds of model bills that ALEC distributes to its legislative members in every state.

Public educators do not have the resources to mount the campaign or strategy that has made ALEC so successful. We lack the funds to wine and dine legislators and their families. The New York Times obtained a copy of ALEC’s tax returns that show “corporate members pay stipends … for lawmakers to travel to annual conferences, including a four-day retreat where ALEC spends as much as $250,000 in child care for members’ families.”

Countermeasures
So how do we counter the efforts of such an organization? We use what the schools have always had, grass-roots support. Our parents are our biggest allies. When you throw in grandparents, we are soon talking about formidable numbers who vote. ALEC now is looking to move to the town and district levels. A newly formed subgroup, the American City County Exchange, works with policymakers from villages, towns, cities and counties to give corporations access to legislation at that level. That is our battleground, and we must claim it.

AASA has put together a toolkit, accessible at http://aasa.org/alec.aspx, that will give you information about ALEC and sample letters and Tweets you can use in your district to stave off this new attack.

In the months ahead, AASA will work with your state association to mount joint campaigns to help us take back our public schools. Join the effort.

Dan Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org. Twitter: @AASADan 

 

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