ALEC Is Back In Ohio

Actually, it never left. But a new education bill is its biggest overreach yet.

We’ve been pulling our hair out for four years. Since 2013, teachers and administrators in Ohio have been dealing with the regulations of House Bill 555: Meaningless school report cards, mandatory retention of third graders who fail a single test, a worthless teacher evaluation system, the adoration of data, and poorly designed, ultra-secret and ever-changing standardized tests—plus many more of the worst ideas that have been tried and failed in other states. The law’s two sponsors were ALEC members (the American Legislative Exchange Council). As were six of its seven co-sponsors. It’s not an Ohio law. It’s an ALEC law.

In 2011, Governor John Kasich (one of ALEC’s earliest members) signed “The Innovation Schools Act,” a law based on an ALEC model bill called, “The Innovation Schools and School Districts Act.” According to the report “ALEC in Ohio,” published by People for the American Way (PFAW), “Like so many ALEC proposals, some of the ‘innovative’ remedies put forth by the law would remove collective bargaining rights and waive education laws.” PFAW documented how the law was “closely modeled, and at times copied word for word” from the ALEC model. Seventeen of its House and 11 of its Senate sponsors were ALEC members. Another 2011 law, Senate Bill 88, also lifted large chunks of ALEC language and mandated, as PFAW noted, “using public funds to subsidize private education.” Several other states that year passed almost identical legislation. These aren’t Ohio laws. These are ALEC laws.

Now, with Ohio Representative Andrew Brenner (R-ALEC) leading the charge, the corporate elites are launching their most ambitious attack yet on the state. House Bill 628 would replace Ohio’s existing system of school funding with a universal voucher system, in which every taxpayer dollar would “follow the child” to whatever school the parents choose. Democratically elected school boards would be abolished. Local control would vanish. It’s an ALEC dream.

Brenner had his 15 minutes of national fame in 2014 when he wrote a blog post on his wife’s website (she’s a conservative radio host), saying, “Public education in America is socialism.” And what does the Ohio Republican Party do for a man who declares himself an enemy of public education? Why, they make him chairman of the Education Committee, of course. (Donald Trump used the same logic for his pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos—also a longtime ALEC supporter.)

Brenner introduced HB 628 in December, after both houses had shut down for the year. So he didn’t intend for it to become law. Patrick O’Donnell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes that it can’t even become law until the next biennial budget in 2018. O’Donnell quotes Brenner on his purpose: “to open up the discussion about how we traditionally fund schools in Ohio.” It seems to me an awful lot of work to write a 779-page bill in order to start a conversation.

Another explanation might be provided by Gary L. Anderson and Liliana Montoro Donchik of New York University, in an article published in last year’s Educational Policy. Anderson and Donchik desribe what they call “decoy bills” and the “shotgun approach”:

“Another of ALEC’s strategies is to push multiple bills through at once to overwhelm lawmakers. This involves at times pushing bills they don’t expect to pass as decoys to distract attention so other bills can fly under the radar…. Pushing through lots of voucher bills with different language…represents a kind of shotgun approach at getting some kind of voucher bill through that can be expanded on later.”

This sounds to me like a more plausible explanation for HB 628. It’s probably an ALEC bill, but this is very hard to verify, as ALEC has greatly tightened its secrecy in recent years. They do this by claiming—with a straight face—to be a “charity,” and thus not susceptible to the Freedom of Information Act. It’s odd: everybody knows their main activity, as Wikipedia puts it, is to create “model state-level legislation for distribution among state governments in the United States.” Yet they don’t want people to know when they accomplish exactly this. I can only think of two reasons why an organization might seek to keep its successes secret: 1. they’re extraordinarily modest; or, 2. there’s something smelly about what they do.

Brenner has sponsored or co-sponsored ALEC bills in the past. PFAW presents evidence that one of his laws has especially enormous chunks of plagiarism.

Pennsylvania reintroduced a similar bill—the Property Tax Independence Act—two months before Brenner’s move; this has the similar goal of eliminating local property taxes as the source for school funding, but differs in how the new funding will be made up. It was sponsored by Representative Jim Cox, who of course is an ALEC member. Michigan (where the Department of Education is a wholly owned subsidiary of Betsy DeVos, Inc.) has been phasing out property tax funding for years. As a result, says the Detroit News, “school funding [is] getting more unequal.” Indiana is on a similar track. And Mike Pence was a big shot in ALEC long before Trump picked him for VP; as was his predecessor Mitch Daniels, who also was seriously considered (by Mitt Romney) for vice president. So Ohio is surrounded. Brenner is probably playing catch-up.

After his flash of notoriety in 2014, Andrew Brenner deleted the blog post, and his wife closed down the website. Perhaps Brenner’s words were simply too honest for ALEC sensibilities: “We need to do something that was done about 25 years ago in the former Soviet Union and eastern bloc: sell off the existing buildings, equipment and real estate to those in the private sector.” That’s right: the entire privatization project is the naked plunder of all public assets held for the common good. Their role models are the superrich thieves and mobsters known as the Russian oligarchs.