Iron Man 3 just opened this past weekend, followed soon by more would-be blockbusters. I'm sure a lot of these movies will be entertaining, but none will be more important or relevant than a half-hour documentary I recently watched: The United States of ALEC.
This film, featuring Bill Moyers, does a masterful job of explaining how the closed-door manipulations of the American Legislative Exchange Council and its corporate lobbyists affect public policy in every realm of our society -- including education.
Our nation spends about $500 billion in local, state and federal funds on public schools from kindergarten through high school. Most Americans view this as a wise investment in our nation's future. Throughout the 20th century the U.S. was the clear leader in public education. We created the most vibrant economy the world has ever known. The record speaks for itself -- public education is a great investment.
But there are people who look at our investment in public education, and they see a treasure chest. Their first thought is, how can they tap into those funds for their own private gain? If just one percent of education spending were diverted to private profit, it would mean $5 billion a year in someone's pockets. And that's just counting K-12; higher education is already a huge for-profit sector.
A simple fact of business: You have to spend money to make money. And those who want to privatize education are willing to spend lots of money and effort to push their agenda. One of the main ways they are doing this is through ALEC.
ALEC has pushed education vouchers, which use public funds to pay for private schools, for years. They haven't been deterred by the fact that voters have rejected vouchers time and time again. In states where courts held that vouchers weren't legal, they have looked for loopholes in the law. Currently there are at least five different bills drafted by ALEC that use various approaches to divert public funds to private schools. They all have one thing in common: They undermine our capacity to create great public schools in every neighborhood, by diverting scarce resources that public schools desperately need.
Today, 17 states offer 33 programs that allow parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools. This includes traditional vouchers as well as tax-credit scholarship programs that give individuals or corporations tax reductions if they donate to scholarship funds. My home state of Arizona adopted this tactic.
Vouchers are only one side of ALEC's education agenda. If they can't get public funds for private schools, they try to privatize the public schools.
This is already happening in more ways and in more places than you might think. For-profit companies are managing many charter schools, including online schools where students rarely see a teacher. Although a new study raises serious concerns about virtual schools, they can deliver profits for investors.
So the core of ALEC's education agenda is about vouchers and privatization. Of course, since educators have unions that resist vouchers and privatization, they will do anything in their power to weaken our unions and silence our voices. That's why ALEC backs anti-union measures like the attack on workers' right to collective bargaining. They want to strip away our ability to negotiate not only for salary and health care for our families, but also for things that affect our students, like smaller class sizes.
ALEC has been pushing this agenda for years, but it largely escaped public notice until 2011, when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker launched an all-out attack on teachers and other public workers. That same year, Ohio Governor John Kasich tried to follow the Walker/ALEC template, but voters overwhelmingly rejected that agenda in a public referendum. Since then, ALEC has come under closer scrutiny, and progressive organizations have begun to shine a brighter light on its activities.
Common Cause is screening The United States of ALEC in state capitols around the country. If you aren't able to attend a screening, throw a bag of popcorn in the microwave and watch it here.
I guarantee it will be a half-hour well spent.