Betsy DeVos and Issue of College Sexual Assault Take Center Stage at ALEC in Denver

Denver's massive Blue Bear will be peering in the windows as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos headlines the 44th American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Annual Meeting being held at the Colorado Convention Center's Hyatt Regency Hotel July 19-21.

Other big names speaking at the event include Trump defender-in-chief Newt Gingrich, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, and local mega-donor and light beer magnate Peter Coors, who chairs the right-wing Coors Foundation.

The Center for Media and Democracy reported that there will be a debate on the ALEC draft model bill to repeal the 17th Amendment, but many other controversial issues will be on the ALEC agenda as the meeting gets underway tomorrow. ALEC will be debating bills related to sexual assault on college campuses, campus protest, taxpayer vouchers for private schools and well-off families, the roll back of popular renewable energy programs, the dismantling the Affordable Care Act and more.

College Sexual Assault Takes Center Stage

Sexual harassment and sexual assault have been a crisis on U.S. college campuses for decades. National and campus surveys have repeatedly shown sexual assault to be at epidemic levels affecting 20-25 percent of college women. A recent survey of 23,000 undergrads released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 determined that one in five female undergraduates experience some kind of sexual assault while in college. Only 12.5 percent of victims reported the assault to colleges or law enforcement and an even smaller percentage achieved some form of justice.

In 2011, President Obama's Department of Education issued guidance to college campuses receiving federal Title IX money urging them to improve the investigation and adjudication of assault. The department has investigated and found colleges and universities that do not follow the guidance to be in violation of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. This more aggressive prosecutorial stance and a few high-profile cases of sexual assault allegations that were later called into question appear to have made assault on college campuses a partisan issue.

Now, the Trump administration is weighing in. Last week DeVos held a listening session on the issue giving defendants equal representation as victims, and took a stand — for the accused. DeVos said the stories of those claiming to be wrongly accused of campus sexual assault "are not often told." Earlier, Candice E. Jackson, the top civil rights official at the Department of Education under DeVos, told the New York Times that "the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of 'we were both drunk,' 'we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right." She later apologized for this attack on victims, but she and DeVos made it clear that they were ready to roll back the progress made under the Obama administration in addressing the epidemic of college rape.

After decades of pushing extreme, punitive measures, like Mandatory Minimums, ALEC is poised to go pro-defendant. ALEC wants to make sure that alleged perpetrators are permitted to lawyer up when expulsion is being contemplated.

ALEC corporate and legislative members will be debating a new draft bill that gives college student defendants and victims the right to have an attorney represent them in non-academic disciplinary hearings.

This bill appears to have originated in North Carolina in 2013, around the time 60 women filed a formal complaint against the University of North Carolina for routinely violating the rights of sexual assault survivors. The original bill lacked counsel for the victim, a PR failure that has since been rectified. The bills are being pushed by the right-wing civil rights group Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE). FIRE receives funding from the Bradley Foundation, the Charles G. Koch Foundation and other extreme ideological groups.

ALEC is also discussing another measure, which establishes the right for victims to have a counselor and an attorney throughout the legal process. The bill also calls for the prompt analysis of and the long term retention of rape evidence kits. Victims have the right to sue governments to enforce these rights. A similar bill was promoted by RISE, a national civil rights nonprofit, with zero opposition in Congress. It was signed into law by President Obama last year.

Federal Role in Vouchers on the Agenda at Education and Workforce Development Task Force

Task force agendas indicate that ALEC will be revisiting their cookie-cutter template for universal school vouchers and the Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act, the bill that is the inspiration behind the DeVos-Trump push to install a $20 billion federal tax credit scholarship program for private schools at the federal level. Few details of the plan have been made publicly available, but ALEC legislators will likely get the lowdown.

The Betsy DeVos group American Federation for Children (AFC) along with K12 Inc. have long been the drivers of ALEC's school privatization agenda. This year, AFC's Scott Jensen, the former Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly who was caught up in a corruption scandal, will update ALEC on plans for using the federal government to promote school vouchers.

DeVos recently slammed Denver in a speech because its voucher system doesn't allow parents to take public money to pay for private schools. The DeVos/ALEC vision of universal vouchers, including for wealthy families and religious schools, would fundamentally undermine the nation's public education system. The Colorado Supreme Court has twice ruled taxpayer vouchers for private schools unconstitutional.

According to an ALEC task force agenda, two older bills will be revisited for discussion.

This is a "universal" school vouchers bill designed to funnel public funds to private and religious schools and prevent the state from regulating private schools. With this bill, ALEC abandons any pretense that vouchers are a civil rights ticket for poor or minority children and demonstrates that it wants vouchers for all, including public money for wealthy individuals to send their kids to private and religious institutions. As CMD has reported, vouchers were originally promoted by states in the South as a way to avoid federally mandated desegregation. Nevada passed education savings accounts in 2015, but that programs has been stalled by the state Supreme Court. 17 other states introduced similar bills this year, according to Education Week, none passed except in Arizona.

In contrast with classic vouchers, where the state directly reimburses a private or religious school for tuition costs, these "tuition tax credit" proposals offer tax credits to individuals and corporations who donate to a nonprofit "school tuition organization." The nonprofit then pays for a student's tuition. The measure siphons money from the state treasury to fund the right-wing ideological crusade to privatize the American educational system. Trump and DeVos have proposed something similar at the federal level.

Rolling Back Renewables on the Agenda in Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force

This ALEC draft resolution held over from the Spring task force meeting opposes state funding for green energy projects on private buildings. In particular, this resolution opposes "government involvement in financing renewable and efficiency projects for private property owners." It appears that conflicting industry interests are holding up this ALEC bill which attacks a wildly popular government program.

The Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Program helps promote green energy and energy efficiency projects on private property. It pays for improvements to buildings, and the financing is repaid by an assessment on the building's property taxes over a period of up to 20 years.

This attack on green energy is one in a long line of bills attempting to rollback renewables. Fossil fuel companies Koch Industries and ExxonMobil serve on the ALEC private sector board and major utilities such as Devon Energy, Peabody Energy are ALEC funders and participants. Measures like this one prompted dozens of major corporations such as Google, Facebook and AOL to drop ALEC in 2015. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt accused ALEC of "literally lying" about climate change on NPR.

ALEC "Center to Protect Free Speech" Cracks Down on Campus Protest

ALEC's Center to Protect Free Speech was launched in February 2017. One of only four ALEC policy centers, this one appears primarily interested in shutting down student protest in the name of the First Amendment and shielding the identities of wealthy campaign finance givers, like the billionaire Koch brothers. Koch Industries has served on the ALEC private sector board for decades.

Darcy Olsen, head of the Goldwater Institute, a Bradley and Koch-funded advocacy and litigation operation in Arizona, is scheduled to attend the ALEC meeting in Denver. Goldwater drafted a model bill that has been the impetus for the misnamed "Campus Free Speech" legislation moving throughout the states that seeks to crack down on students protesting right-wing speakers on campus.

At its 2017 Spring Task Force Summit, ALEC joined the effort to muzzle protesters on college campuses approving the "Forming Open and Robust University Minds (FORUM) Act," a model bill that among other things requires campus speech "education," eliminates "free speech zones" on campus, requires universities to report on campus dissent prior to the legislature's appropriations process and allows "alleged victims to bring a cause of action for violation of their free speech rights." The Goldwater Institute has a tougher bill that suspends or even expels students who protest speakers. Former ALEC National Chair Leah Vukmir authored a similar bill in the state of Wisconsin. There will likely be some discussion and debate regarding these competing models at the Denver meeting.

At the December 2016 States and Nation Policy Summit, ALEC passed a "Resolution in Support of Nonprofit Donor Privacy," which ALEC says protects "charities" from being forced to disclose their donors, but which is really geared toward shielding the identities of the millionaires, billionaires and industry groups secretly bankrolling campaigns and elections. Simple disclosure in campaigns and elections used to be an area of agreement between Republicans and Democrats at the national and state level. Since the 2010 Citizens United decision unleashing unlimited dark money, the Kochs and their allies have tried hard to chip away at that consensus and roll back disclosure in states.

Members of ALEC has recommended that a focus of the Center should be to combat campaign finance laws like SB96 proposed in New Mexico, which would have required independent groups that spend big money on elections to disclose to the public and voters where they are getting their money and what they are spending it on. The bill would also have barred coordination between candidates and these "independent" groups. The bill passed both houses but was vetoed by the Republican Governor after the national leader of AFP and the national Koch-funded apparatus weighed in.

Support for NAFTA in Federalism and International Relations Task Force

ALEC will debate a resolution that doubles down on its decades long support for job-killing free trade legislation. "ALEC supports international free trade and the continuation and strengthening of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)... ALEC urges the President of the United States and the Congress of the United States to first-and-foremost do no harm in the upcoming negotiations with Mexico and Canada as they seek to modernize NAFTA and to update and improve the agreement while not compromising existing commercial ties and activities between the United States, Mexico and Canada."

ALEC Preps States for ACA Battle in Health and Human Services Task Force

The Koch brothers have lead a war against the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded health care coverage to over 20 million Americans. As CMD has documented, the Kochs have funded every major group protesting the ACA including ALEC, "grassroots" Tea Party groups, the Center to Protect Patient Rights (now American Encore), Heritage Action and more. ALEC has authored a dozen bills designed to undermine state exchanges, Medicaid expansion and other aspects of the ACA.

Now, ALEC will debate a new "Statement of Principles" that instructs Congress to pass a health care law that "grants maximum authority to states in how they regulate their insurance markets," and "Repeal(s) all taxes, fees and mandates in the Affordable Care Act." Also, that "ensure(s) states have the authority to opt-out of harmful provisions of the law, such as the mandatory essential health benefits, guaranteed issue; mandated preventive health services and age rating bands…"

ALEC's language here is extreme. Mandatory essential benefits, such as in-hospital care, pregnancy care, preventive care, and coverage for preexisting conditions are guarantees that are wildly popular with the public. Speaker Ryan and the Republican Congress want to grant states waivers for these essential benefits, which helps explain why 67 percent of voters oppose the House bill.

This new bill would impose a "work requirement for able-bodied adults receiving services and benefits from the Medicaid program." Medicaid is a health care program for the neediest Americans including children, elderly in nursing homes, the blind and disabled and low income families. Speaker Paul Ryan's health care overhaul would slash a stunning $800 million out of this vital program. While many believe that health care is a right and should be provided by the government as it is in most developed nations, ALEC likes to shame middle income and low income Americans who need government support.

A number of states are gearing up to ask to impose a work requirement on Medicaid. Kentucky and Maine have asked the Trump administration for approval to establish a work requirement on Medicaid beneficiaries. Arizona announced that it will do so as well and Ohio and Florida are preparing to do the same.

This is a new draft bill authorizing states to set up an insurance "high risk pool," after obtaining a waiver from the ACA. High risk pools are a cynical effort to pretend that there will be affordable options for Americans with preexisting conditions. The reality is that high risk pools have been tried and failed in states across the country, when predictably high costs became too prohibitively expensive both for consumers and states.

Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force Draft Legislation

The Kochs oppose taxpayer money for sports stadiums and if passed so will ALEC. This draft resolution opposes any "government ownership, financing or spending of and for professional sports stadiums." The resolution would also sign the state into an interstate compact, which would take effect upon ratification by 24 other states.

Criminal Justice Task Force

Punitive ALEC model bills like "Truth in Sentencing" and "Minimum-Mandatory Sentencing" have incarcerated hundreds of thousands of individuals, particularly young African American men. Now, in a PR effort to burnish its image, ALEC is fielding a number of model bills that are less punitive.

For instance, this bill raises the dollar threshold for charging a felony, and indexing it to inflation.

This bill limits the ability of states to deny occupational licensing and certification to individuals with criminal records. The bill also includes language that could apply additional restrictions on the right of a state to limit licensing and certification: "The right of an individual to pursue an occupation is a fundamental right."

The bill stands as a very odd contrast to Koch/ALEC crusade against what they consider to be unnecessary state licensure and credentialing of professions. After the Koch's top lawyer Mark Holden wrote about this issue in op-eds in major papers in 2015, ALEC fielded bills, such as this one on "natural hair braiding", in an attempt to show that all occupational licensing is silly.

Denver Resists DeVos

Common Cause and Common Cause Colorado issued a report on ALEC bills moving in Colorado and organized a huge teach in this past weekend on ALEC's interference in Colorado attended by hundreds of Coloradans. Learn more here and follow @CommonCauseCo @CommonCause.

A diversity of democracy activists, teachers, students and more will be marching from the State Capitol in Denver 101 E. 14th Street to the ALEC hotel tomorrow July 19, from 10-12 PM. Find out the details on the Facebook page "Denver RESISTS DeVos." #ALECinDenver is being used by protesters #ALECinCO is being used by the ALEC visitors.

Evan James, David Armiak, David Johnson contributed to this report.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.


Why are you so afraid of private, not for profit schools receiving voucher funds? Are you so convinced that the public school teachers are less competent and not as good at their jobs that the students will run to the private schools as soon as they are allowed to choose? That's not much of a show of confidence in your team. Private schools on average pay their teachers substantially less. The funds that would come if vouchers passed might be able to offset the coercive health taxes. Why are you afraid of true choice? Clearly you think low-income parents are too stupid to make choices for their family or you are confident they will make a choice that is at odds with your wishes. This position - the anti-free choice position - is one of the least liberal, most closed-minded in existence today. I would be curious to know if you have children or grands. How willing would you be to send them to a failing public school to test your theory.