Cashing in on Kids: 139 ALEC Bills in 2013 Promote a Private, For-Profit Education Model

Despite widespread public opposition to the education privatization agenda, at least 139 bills or state budget provisions reflecting American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) education bills have been introduced in 43 states and the District of Columbia in just the first six months of 2013, according to an analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy, publishers of Thirty-one have become law.

ALEC Vouchers Transfer Taxpayer Money to Private and Religious Schools

News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch has called public education a "a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed."

But this "transformation" of public education -- from an institution that serves the public into one that serves private for-profit interests -- has been in progress for decades, thanks in large part to ALEC.

ALEC boasts on the "history" section of its website that it first started promoting "such 'radical' ideas as a [educational] voucher system" in 1983 -- the same year as the Reagan administration's "Nation At Risk" report -- taking up ideas first articulated decades earlier by ALEC supporter Milton Friedman.

ALEC Cash For KidsIn 1990, Milwaukee was the first city in the nation to implement a school voucher program, under then-governor (and ALEC alum) Tommy Thompson. ALEC quickly embraced the legislation, and that same year offered model bills based on the Wisconsin plan. For-profit schools in Wisconsin now receive up to $6,442 per voucher student, and by the end of the next school year taxpayers in the state will have transferred an estimated $1.8 billion to for-profit, religious, and online schools. The "pricetag" for students in other states is even higher.

In the years since, programs to divert taxpayer money from public to private schools have spread across the country. In the 2012-2013 school year, it is estimated that nearly 246,000 students will participate in various iterations of so-called "choice" programs in 16 states and the District of Columbia -- draining the public school system of critically-needed funds, and in some cases covering private school tuition for students whose parents are able and willing to pay.

But promised improvements in educational outcomes have not followed. "If vouchers are designed to create better educational outcomes, research has not borne out that result," says Julie Mead, chair of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin. "If vouchers are such a great idea," after twenty years in effect, "they would have borne fruit by now."

The ALEC education agenda also fits into the organization's broader attack on unions: by lowering teacher certification standards and funneling public money to non-unionized private schools, ALEC undermines teachers unions, which guarantee fair wages and working conditions and are a major political force that have traditionally backed the Democratic Party.

ALEC Education Bills Undermine Free, Universal Public Education

ALEC-influenced bills introduced in 2013 include legislation to:

  • Create or expand taxpayer-funded voucher programs, using bills such as the "Parental Choice Scholarship Act" (introduced in three states). Under many state constitutions, the use of public dollars to fund religious institutions has been rejected on separation-of-powers grounds, but the ALEC Great Schools Tax Credit Act, introduced in ten states in 2013, bypasses state constitutional provisions and offers a form of private school tuition tax credits that funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools with even less public accountability than with regular vouchers.
  • Carve-out vouchers for students with special needs, regardless of family income, through the "Special Needs Scholarship Program Act" (introduced in twelve states), which sends vulnerable children to for-profit schools not bound by federal and state legal requirements to meet a student's special needs, as public schools must. A proposal in Wisconsin would have allocated up to $14,658 to a for-profit school for each special needs student.
  • Send taxpayer dollars to unaccountable online school providers through the "Virtual Schools Act," introduced in three states, where a single teacher remotely teaches a "class" of hundreds of isolated students working from home. The low overhead for virtual schools certainly raises company profits, but it is a model few educators think is a appropriate for young children.
  • Offer teaching credentials to individuals with subject-matter experience but no education background with the Alternative Certification Act, introduced in seven states. The bill is part of ALEC's ongoing effort to undermine unionized workers and promote a race to the bottom in wages and benefits for American workers.
  • Require that educators "teach the controversy" when it comes to topics like climate change -- where the only disagreement is political, not scientific -- through the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act, introduced in five states.
  • Create opportunities to privatize public schools or fire teachers and principals via referendum with the controversial Parent Trigger Act (glorified in the flop film "Won't Back Down"), introduced in twelve states. First passed in California, a modified Parent Trigger bill was brought to ALEC in 2010 by the Illinois-based Heartland Institute, which is perhaps best known for controversial billboards comparing people who believe in climate change to mass murderers like the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
  • Create an appointed, state-level charter school authorizing board through the Next Generation Charter Schools Act, introduced in seven states, which effectively shields charters from democratic accountability. The legislation "would wrest control from school boards, and likewise from the community that elects those school boards," Mead says, since it takes away their power to authorize charters in the community.

ALEC Corporations Reap the Rewards

Some of the for-profit corporations profiting from the ALEC Education privatization agenda include:

"Amplify," the newly-created education division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, parent company of Fox News. News Corp is on the ALEC Education Task Force. In 2010, News Corp hired former New York City chancellor Joel Klein to run its education division, which includes the for-profit education company formerly known as Wireless Generation. The firm has big plans for a specialized "Amplify Tablet" that would provide lesson plans, textbooks and testing to cash-in on new "Common Core" required state standards.

K12 Inc., the nation's largest provider of online charter schools, where low-paid teachers manage as many as 250 students at a time and communicate with their pupils only through email and phone. The corporation, whose CEO Ron Packard received $5 million in total compensation in 2011 (and owns around $24 million in shares), is on the ALEC Education Task Force and its lobbyist Lisa Gillis has Chaired ALEC's Special Needs Subcommittee. According to a report in the New York Times, students in K12, Inc. schools often perform very poorly, and some K12 teachers claim that they have been encouraged to pass failing students so that the company can receive more reimbursement from states. K12 receives an average of between $5,500 and $6,000 for every student on its rosters -- the same amount that would be spent for students attending a brick-and-mortar school, despite K12 not having to pay for cafeteria, gyms, busing, or heat and air conditioning -- and much of K12's profits are spent on advertising targeted at increasing enrollment, rather than on investments in education. At K12's Agora Cyber Charter School, which produces more than 10% of the company's revenue, nearly 60% of students are behind grade level in math, nearly 50% are behind in reading, and a third do not graduate on time.

Corinthian Colleges is a for-profit college chain that operates campuses under names like Everest, Heald, and WyoTech, in addition to offering degrees online. It has become notorious for aggressive recruiting practices and leaving students unprepared for the job market and saddled with massive student loan debts. In Milwaukee, for example, where a Corinthian Everest campus was financed with $11 million in city bonds, just 25% of students found jobs and over half dropped out; the campus closed two years after it opened. Nationally, over 40 percent of Corinthian's students default on their loans, and only 60% of students complete their coursework. In June, Corinthian disclosed that it is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and has been subpoenaed by California's Attorney General for its recruiting practices and financial responsibility.

Ideological Interests Lift the ALEC Agenda

An array of right-wing nonprofits also promote the school privatization agenda in ALEC.

The 501(c)(4) American Federation for Children and its 501(c)(3) wing the Alliance for School Choice, for example, have brought an array of privatization bills to ALEC and promoted the legislation across the country. The groups were organized and are funded by the billionaire DeVos family (heirs to the Amway fortune); Richard DeVos has received the ALEC "Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award." AFC's top lobbyist is disgraced former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who was convicted of three felonies for misuse of his office for political purposes and banned from the state Capitol for five years (though the charges were later reversed and dropped as part of a plea agreement). Jensen represents the organization on the ALEC Education Task Force and has brought AFC bills to ALEC for adoption as "model" legislation. AFC spent at least $7 million electing privatization-friendly state legislators across the country in 2012, but reported far less to state election authorities.

In addition to the DeVos family foundations, the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation is one of the top school privatization funders in the country, spending over $31 million over the past eleven years promoting "school choice" nationwide, according to One Wisconsin Now; for decades, Bradley has also been a major ALEC funder. The foundation has over $600 million in assets and is headed by Michael Grebe, Scott Walker's campaign co-chair.

Before Milwaukee became the first city in the nation to implement a school voucher program, Bradley bankrolled the groups that laid the groundwork. When the plan was challenged in Wisconsin courts, Bradley funded its legal defense, which included hiring Kenneth Starr -- later known for pursuing Bill Clinton over Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky -- to represent the state.

Average Americans Pay the Price

Originally promoted as a program for Milwaukee's low-income students of color to have access to private education, the initial voucher program gained support from some African-American leaders and was pushed by State Representative Polly Williams, a Milwaukee Democrat. But last session, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker broadened vouchers to families with higher incomes, and in the 2013-2015 budget further expanded the program. "They have hijacked the program," Williams says. "As soon as the doors open for the low income children, they're trampled by the high income," she said. "Now the upper crust have taken over."

The laws have been sold to poor and minority communities as a way to close achievement gaps, but there is little evidence of success: in Wisconsin, data shows that students receiving vouchers perform no better, and in some cases worse than those attending public schools. Cash-for-kids programs have shown similar results in school districts across the country.

Reports have also emerged in Milwaukee and elsewhere of for-profit schools registering students, keeping them in class until just after the date where enrollment is counted for funding purposes, and then sending them back to public schools. In many cases those students have special needs the voucher schools claimed they could not satisfy.

Six-year-old Trinity Fitzer, who has anxiety and gastrointentinal problems, was attending Milwaukee's Northwestern Catholic School in the 2011-2012 term on a voucher. After a few months, Northwestern Catholic informed Trinity's mother that she was being "withdrawn" from the school for "continuing behavioral issues." The school claimed that "withdrawal is the decision of the parent," but Trinity's mother said it was not her decision and "she didn't have an option."

Jane Audette, a social worker at Hawthorne Elementary, a public school in Milwaukee, said the school receives several "cast-off" students every year from private schools like Northwestern Catholic. "What has happened over and over with Milwaukee's Northwest Catholic is they will tell a parent, 'Your child needs more than we can give your child, so we suggest you go down the street to Hawthorne.'"

And vouchers, testing, and school privatization have in many cases been offered as a substitute for grappling with the persistent structural issues that perpetuate achievement gaps.

"What has been forced on our communities is not reform at all: they are mediocre interventions," said Jitu Brown, an education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization who spoke at Netroots Nation in June. "The only reason that mediocrity is accepted is because of the race of the children being served."

Privatizing Schools and Other Government Services

Brown puts the education reforms in the context of broader community disinvestment and austerity measures: cutting social programs and closing schools, police stations, hospitals, and other institutions that serve as community anchors, while cherry picking and selling off the better institutions to private players.

And ALEC has played a key role in promoting this agenda. ALEC has sought to shrink the size of government by starving states of revenue, voucherizing critical programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and privatizing all aspects of government, from education to foster care to pensions to prisons.

When the ALEC's cash-for-kids model is put before the voters, it is resoundingly rejected. In 27 statewide referenda on the topic, voters rejected vouchers on average 2-1. But as long as ALEC "models" continue to garner bipartisan support facilitated by corporate campaign contributions or are slipped into state budgets in the dead of night -- ALEC will have continued success with the "transformation" of the American educational system into a profit-driven enterprise.

The ALEC Education agenda not only "converts a public good into something private," says Mead, but private schools "don't have the same responsibility [as public schools] to serve everybody, which diminishes public access, oversight and accountability."

"There is that saying, 'democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.' The public school system is the same way," Mead says. "It has problems, and can be better, but has served us pretty well for 150 years."

View the full list of 2013 ALEC education bills here.

ALEC Education Bills 2013
State ALEC Bill State Bill
AL Founding Principles Act SB 443
AL The Innovation Schools and School Districts Act HB 84
AK Founding Principles Act HB 31
AZ District and School Freedom Act HB 2496
AZ Environmental Literacy Improvement Act SB 1213
AZ Parent Trigger Act SB 1409
AZ Founding Principles Act SB 1212
AZ Resolution Supporting Private Scholarship Tax Credits HB 2617
AZ The Great Schools Tax Credit (Scholarship Tax Credit) Act HB 2617
AZ The Next Generation Charter Schools Act HB 2494
AZ The Virtual Public Schools Act HB 2493
AR Founding Principles Act SB 1017
AR Resolution Supporting Private Scholarship Tax Credits SB 740
AR The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act HB 1788
AR The Great Schools Tax Credit (Scholarship Tax Credit) Act SB 740
AR The Innovation Schools and School Districts Act SB 66
AR The Next Generation Charter Schools Act HB 1040
AR The Open Enrollment Act HB 1507
AR The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act HB 1897, HB 2260
CA The Open Enrollment Act AB 1279
CO Environmental Literacy Improvement Act HB 13-1089
CT The Lifelong Learning Accounts Act SB 769
DE The Charter Schools Act HB 165
DC The Innovation Schools and School Districts Act B 20-0310
FL Alternative Certification Act SB 1664, SB 1238
FL Education Savings Account HB 1251
FL The Innovation Schools and School Districts Act SB 1390
FL The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act SB 172
FL Parent Trigger Act HB 867, SB 862
ID The Great Schools Tax Credit (Scholarship Tax Credit) Act HB 227, HB 286
IL Alternative Certification Act HB 513, HB 1868
IN Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act HB 1003, HB 1001
IN Parental Rights Amendment SB 332
IN The Smart Start Scholarship Program HB 1003
IN The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act HB 1003
IA Parent Trigger Act SF 2
IA The Great Schools Tax Credit (Scholarship Tax Credit) Act HB 225
KS Environmental Literacy Improvement Act HB 2306
KS Parental Rights Amendment HR 6010
KS Public Employee Freedom Act HB 2123
KS The Great Schools Tax Credit (Scholarship Tax Credit) Act HB 2400
KS The Next Generation Charter Schools Act SB 196
KS The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act HB 2263
KY Environmental Literacy Improvement Act HB 269
KY The Great Schools Tax Credit (Scholarship Tax Credit) Act HB 66
KY The Next Generation Charter Schools Act HB 76
KY The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act HB 155
LA Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act HB 597
ME Alternative Certification Act SP 461
ME The Next Generation Charter Schools Act HP 967
ME The Virtual Public Schools Act HP 331, SP 391
MD Parent Trigger Act HB 875
MA Alternative Certification Act H 418
MA Founding Principles Act H 513
MA Parent Trigger Act H 429
MI Founding Principles Act SB 121
MI The Virtual Public Schools Act HB 4228, SB 182
MN The Charter Schools Act SF 978
MS Parental Rights Amendment HC 90, HC 96, HB 496
MS The Great Schools Tax Credit (Scholarship Tax Credit) Act SB 2132, HB 1095
MS The Innovation Schools and School Districts Act SB 2716, HB 118, HB 787
MS The Next Generation Charter Schools Act SB 2189
MS The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act HB 1004
MO Parent Trigger Act SB 311
MO Teacher Choice Compensation Act SB 408
MO The Next Generation Charter Schools Act HB 315
MT Resolution Calling for Greater Productivity in American Higher Education SJ 13
MT Education Savings Account Act HB 357
MT The Charter Schools Act SB 374, HB 315
MT The Great Schools Tax Credit (Scholarship Tax Credit) Act HB 213
MT The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act HB 390
NE Parental Rights Amendment LR 42
NV Founding Principles Act SB 163
NV Great Teachers and Leaders Act SB 407
NV Parent Trigger Act AB 254
NV Parental Rights Amendment SB 314
NV The Charter Schools Act AB 205
NJ The Charter Schools Act A 4177
NJ The Family Education Savings Account Act A 3959
NM Local Government Transparency Act SB 63
NY Common Sense in Medication Students Act A 2972
NY Founding Principles Act S 2134
NY Parent Trigger Act A 3826
NY Quality Education and Teacher and Principal Protection Act A 3110
NY The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act S 788
NC Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act HB 944
NC Parental Rights Amendment H 711
NC The 140 Credit Hour Act HB 255
NC The Innovation Schools and School Districts Act H 960
OH Founding Principles Act SB 96
OK Alternative Certification Act SB 877
OK Environmental Literacy Improvement Act HB 1674
OK Founding Principles Act SB 154
OK Parent Trigger Act HB 1385
OK Parental Rights Amendment HB 1384
OR Parent Trigger Act HB 2881
PA The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act (Scholarship Tax Credits) SB 51
RI The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act H6131
SC Parent Trigger Act S 556
SC Parental Rights Amendment S 628
SC The Charter Schools Act S 3853
SC The Open Enrollment Act S 313
SD Founding Principles Act SCR 2
TN Founding Principles Act HB 1129
TN Local Government Transparency Act SB 2832
TN Parent Trigger Act HB 77
TN The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act HB 387, SB 486
TX Parental Rights Amendment HCR 38
TX Statewide Online Education Act SB 1298
TX Taxpayers Savings Grants Act SB 29
TX The Education Enterprise Zone Act HB 300
TX The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act SB 17
VA Parental Rights Amendment HB 1642, SB 908
VA Resolution Supporting Private Scholarship Tax Credits SB 1227, HB 1996
VA The Great Schools Tax Credit (Scholarship Tax Credit) Act HB 1996, SB 1227
WA A-Plus Literacy Act SB 5328
WV The Charter Schools Act HB 2808
WV Alternative Certification Act SB 359
WV Resolution Adopting the 10 Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning SB 37
WV Founding Principles Act HB 2594
WI The Family Education Savings Account Act SB 111
WI The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act AB 40


It seems that the fix is in. Under the guise of educational "reform" ALEC has instigated an all out effort to destroy public education by providing exotic and innovative programs that only creates money making opportunities for its for-profit corporate buddies. This is not educational reform. It is stealing from the American people. This is criminal, but because of ALEC's financial stranglehold on so many politicians their power is oppressive. Bottom line: American school children are being scammed. Shame on ALEC and the Republicans...They certainly know how to "Stand their ground!"

What a country we live in when school children's futures are cashed in for profit, with the government's assistance. The US was the first nation to have free compulsory education, and that great edifice is being torn down by greed, like so much else in this country. My sister teaches at a charter school. She says that teachers who are unqualified to teach a particular topic are told to teach it anyway. She has a degree in art, and teaches mathematics. She told me that it's a Christian charter school located in a right wing voting district, but I don't know how that can be, since charter school regulations state that they are to be non-sectarian. America seems like it is slowly collapsing in on itself due to neglect, greed and malice. If Canada accepted 50+ year old unemployed (former technical worker) immigrants from America, I'd pack my bags today.

I totally agree with you; America is collapsing and is no longer the great nation it once was... if I could go to Canada, I'd go as well. :-(

These are the same types of folks who created new and better financial instruments to gain more profit from your home mortgage, insurance, and health care. Oh, you don't remember the crash of 2008? Same profit motive that crashed the economy that conservatives want to continue rather than give credit to Obama. The people must rise. We the people; not we the corporations.

I am a teacher in Chicago. Obama has been involved with neoliberal economic/social policies here since 1994. He began his public career by assisting venture philanthropy (the Joyce Foundation) and Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago Commercial Club (his original and most loyal booster) as they pursued a city plan to "gentrifiy" African American poor neighborhoods through destabilization, i.e., pushing them from their homes, closing schools and medical facilities, and curtailing public services. He knows exactly what he is doing and which side he is on. Arnie Duncan works for him, not the other way around. I'm not sure, however, who works for whom when it comes to Penny Pritzger, his choice for Secretary of Commerce. Regardless, it really is time to stop with the "man of the people" hooey, especially when Abraham Lincoln's birthday rolls around.