I arrived earlier this month to the forty-fourth annual conference of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Denver to the best possible greeting—scores of protesters marching around the host hotel. Yellow tape and police barricades blocked all visible entrances. I joined the protesters for a while before I ducked under some yellow tape and entered the hotel.
I did not sneak in; I was a registered guest. As a Democratic member of the Wisconsin state Assembly, I have been going to ALEC conferences for years—to see for myself how this rightwing group crafts model legislation to advance the interests of its corporate and ideological funders.
The issue of the moment for ALEC is public education—that is, undermining it. ALEC members are foaming at the mouth for the now-endless opportunities to further privatize public schools, long a central goal. When he was governor of Wisconsin in the early 1990s, Tommy Thompson implemented the first state voucher scheme in the nation—an idea he acquired from an ALEC conference.
Fittingly, the keynote speaker at ALEC’s July 19-21 conference was school privatization czarina Betsy DeVos. DeVos has spent most of her life using her billions to push privatizing public education through charter and voucher school schemes.
After bashing ALEC convention protesters, along with George Soros and the “radical left,” DeVos lauded the twenty states that have expanded privatization efforts this year. She encouraged more action to privatize public education, remarking that “no one has ever lost a seat because of choice,” a refrain I heard repeatedly (perhaps because of the millions of dollars the school privatization industry “invests” in supportive candidates).
DeVos promised to “completely review” (i.e., gut) President Obama’s “most harmful regulations,” including one to protect students from the predatory practices of for-profit colleges. She urged “empowering” teachers, though her hostility to teachers’ unions is well known. She called on states to “use the power of the purse” to “restore” free speech rights on campus, a popular conservative refrain as groups including ALEC push model bills to punish political speech and protesting on campus.
But DeVos’s philosophy was illuminated most by her quote of another former Education Secretary—Margaret Thatcher. The quote: “But who is society? There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”
DeVos, like most of the people at ALEC, dismisses the collective good in favor of the individual benefit. Our public education system was designed to collectively educate the masses, in hopes that democracy would thrive. Her priority, and ALEC’s agenda, are otherwise.
Yet despite DeVos’s and ALEC’s rallying cries against the federal government’s “interference” and “overreach,” her efforts to expand vouchers will ironically come from . . . wait for it . . . a new federal program. According to the American Federation for Children, DeVos (the group’s former chairwoman) will push to implement a “federal choice tax credit” program, funded by taxpayer dollars.
What the voucher pushers never mention is that their privatization efforts have failed to do what they initially promised—increase academic performance and graduation rates for low-income, African-American kids. We need look no further than Milwaukee and decades of proof that students in voucher schools perform no better than children in public schools.
The private school industry’s response to this failure is to change the topic. It’s no longer about low-income students in low-performing schools. Now the focus is on middle-income families and the talking points are about parental choice.
Proponents know their universal voucher scheme, where public dollars flow directly to families rather than to schools, makes it impossible for a public-school infrastructure to survive. How do you maintain public school facilities and staff when you have no guaranteed funding?
For ALEC, it is all about tearing down our public-school infrastructure so corporate privatization efforts can move in and make a buck.
What you never hear at ALEC is any discussion about improving public education. There is never a mention of smaller class sizes, community schools, or recruiting and retaining a diverse pool of the best and brightest teachers. To DeVos, those who support public schools are “supporters of the status quo.”
The ABCs at ALEC stand for Anything But Children, as most attend public schools that ALEC members want to unravel. If ALEC wins, the losers will be children.