Smart ALEC in the Classroom

ALEC's 2004 Report Card on American EducationThe American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded conservative advocacy group that specializes in lobbying state legislatures for enactment of favorable legislation, has issued a "2004 Report Card on American Education" that provides an instructive example of the ways that industry-funded organizations manipulate information to reach foreordained conclusions.

ALEC's report, which comes packaged with a glossy clip-art cover showing a pencil, ruler and other classroom implements, was authored by Andrew T. LeFevre, the President of LeFevre Associates, a PR/lobby firm based in northern Virginia. It was edited by Lori Drummer, who heads ALEC's education task force, which is "responsible for overseeing the development of ALEC policy related to education reform and school choice programs" - euphemisms for school privatization, which ALEC advocates.

In conservative circles, it is simply assumed that private, for-profit companies can do everything better than government programs, so their policy prescriptions invariably involve diverting public dollars to pay private companies for doing things that local, state and federal governments have been doing up until now. This assumption works out very nicely, of course, for the companies that stand to get a slice of the business when government services are privatized. This is the philosophy and underlying economic motivation, for example, behind the Bush administration's current push to privatize Social Security (which would benefit private banks and investment firms). It is also the philosophy of the Association of Private Correctional and Treatment Organizations (APCTO), a trade association of the private prison industry, where LeFevre used to work until recently. At APCTO, he enthusiastically promoted privatization of prisons, and now that he has turned his attention to education, he thinks that good things will come from privately-run charter schools, funded by school vouchers (meaning, your tax dollars). Private prisons, private schools - different institutions, same solution.

The ALEC education report gives public education a grade of "incomplete." It cites statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally-mandated project that collects data about student academic performance. According the 2003 NAEP mathematics exam, 73% of public school eighth graders performed below the "proficiency" level, and 32% performed below the "basic" level.

This might sound like public schools are underperforming, but when I asked my wife (who teaches special education in a public school), she explained that part of the reason some students perform badly on the NAEP test is that public schools include special ed students like hers -- kids who are learning-disabled and/or emotionally disturbed. Some 12 percent of the kids in public schools are in special ed. For students with learning disabilities, modifications are made to the curriculum to help them learn at the level of their ability. (For example, special ed kids might be allowed to use a calculator on a math test, where regular kids are not.) These modifications are not allowed, however, when the same kids take the NAEP tests. At testing time, therefore, special ed kids are asked to perform tasks that are outside their normal classroom experience and beyond their capacity.

The ALEC report is 148 pages long and seems impressive at first glance. It boasts "more than 50 tables and figures that display in various ways more than 100 measures of educational resources and achievement." Most of the tables and figures, however, consist of uncorrelated listings of figures taken from the NAEP and other public sources, showing how each state ranks pupil/teacher ratios, percentage of revenues from the federal government, total dollars spent, average annual salary of teachers, etc. Some of this left me with the impression that the authors were padding out the report with lots of numbers that no one will every bother to read. For example, what point is there in reporting that Wyoming spent $720,000 on education in 2001-2002, while Wisconsin spent $7,605,190? The numbers don't mean anything when they're not correlated with other information, such as the relative population size of each state. Similarly, the ALEC report lists the percentage of residents in each state who live below the poverty line but makes no attempt to show how those numbers correlate with student academic performance.

ALEC is in the business of writing reports to influence state legislators, and it counts on the fact that almost no one will bother to look at all the statistics. The real meat of the report is in its executive summary, which praises charter schools and dismisses the idea that schools might need more money to do a better job. It quotes ALEC Executive Director Duane Parde, who declares, "We cannot simply spend our way to better grades, but must make sure that we are making the right kinds of investments in our schools to promote high student achievement."

There is, in fact, an odd disconnect between the statistical data in ALEC's report and its narrative sections. For example, the report claims that Bush's No Child Left Behind Act "has made significant progress towards identifying those schools and teachers that are doing a good job of educating students" but offers no statistical data whatsoever about No Child Left Behind and admits in fact that it is still "too early to significantly measure its impact." On page 112, charts show a positive correlation between improved student SAT scores and per capita spending, higher teacher salaries and better pupil/teacher ratios. This might seem to suggest that more spending on education improves outcomes, but the report dismisses this possibility with the claim that "standard regression tests" suggest otherwise.

The report also praises the state of Arizona for having "the strongest charter school law in the nation" and ranks it the number one state in the nation for "educational freedom," using a ranking system provided by the Manhattan Institute, another conservative think tank. Yet other statistics scattered throughout the report suggest that Arizona's educational system isn't doing very well. It is one of only three states that have more pupils per teacher now than in 1981. Arizona's rankings in SAT college entrance exams are marginally higher than the national average, but this figure is less than impressive once you take into account the fact that Arizona is one of only two states in the country where fewer than half of students even bothered to take college entrance exams in 2002. And on page 83, the ALEC report notes that Arizona's SAT scores have fallen more since 1981 than any other state in the country.

The most striking disconnect, however, is that for all its praise of charter schools, the ALEC report makes no attempt to statistically measure how well students are actually doing there. This omission is all the more striking since the National Assessment of Educational Progress - the same institution which is the source for most of the data in ALEC's report - recently finished its own first-ever statistical assessment of charter schools. Unfortunately, the results don't support ALEC's claim that states which have passed legislation "allowing the rapid growth of charter schools and the use of vouchers ... are leading the way as we enter the new century."

In fact, as the New York Times reported in August, NAEF's statistics showed "charter school students often doing worse than comparable students in regular public schools. The findings, buried in mountains of data the Education Department released without public announcement, deal a blow to supporters of the charter school movement, including the Bush administration. The data show fourth graders attending charter schools performing about half a year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math."

The U.S. Department of Education, headed by Bush appointees who support charter schools, took exception to the Times story, which was based in part on an analysis of NAEF's data by the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers' union that opposes charter schools (as does the other major U.S. teachers' union, the NEA). However, its own statistical analysis of the data, released December 15, largely confirmed the AFT report: throughout the country, students in charter schools are testing below students in public schools. As the Times reported in a follow-up story, "the only charter schools that outperformed regular public schools in reading were those that had been in operation for less than a year. Otherwise, test scores generally declined the longer a school had been operating as a charter." Yet another Department of Education study issued this year found that "charter schools as an overall group are less likely than traditional public schools to employ teachers meeting state certification standards." Moreover, charter schools that have problems with student performance "rarely face formal sanctions (revocation or nonrenewal) ... Authorizers have difficulty closing schools that are having problems."

And although problems with student performance may not close charter schools, financial problems may - as Californians learned this summer with the collapse of the California Charter Academy, the state's largest chain of publicly-financed but privately-run charter schools. The Charter Academy's bankruptcy left 6,000 students with no school to attend this fall, forcing parents into last-minute searches for alternate schools, while its former teachers joined the ranks of the unemployed, and students' academic records were left at risk in abandoned school sites.

Does this mean that all charter schools are bad? Not according to California's superintendent of schools. Even after the Charter Academy disaster, he insisted that a majority of the state's 537 charter schools were making a positive contribution, but added that "tough love" in the form of state regulation and oversight was necessary "to keep this kind of near-bankruptcy and chaos from happening again." But that's precisely the sort of thinking that you won't get from ALEC's ideologically-driven "Report Card on American Education," which judges the "strength" of each state's charter school laws based on whether they offer an "automatic waiver from laws and regulations" and give charter schools "full autonomy over fiscal matters."