Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ speech to the American Legislative Exchange Council met with protests before she’d even arrived in Denver. But teachers and activists aren’t the only ones objecting to the extreme, anti-public education agenda DeVos shares with ALEC. One of the great questions of our time is just how far to the fringe the right wing of the Republican Party can march before the business-minded set steps in and yanks the chain. ALEC’s education platform is providing a real-time test case.
Virtually everything you need to know about ALEC’s education priorities is captured in the group’s most recent Report Card on American Education. Here, “forward-thinking” states like Arizona reign supreme thanks to a ranking system that prizes freedom from the education monopoly above all. Arizona’s high school graduation rate may be a full 25 percent lower than my own adopted home state of Massachusetts (languishing at #32 on the ALEC scale), but at least students aren’t choked by burdensome homeschooling regulations. In fact, thanks to far-sighted lawmakers like Arizona ALEC state chair Debbie Lesko (ALEC lawmaker of the year '16), young Arizonans can now eschew school for a buffet of “a la carte learning options,” paid for with pre-loaded edu-debit cards, a vision DeVos regards as a model.
The theme of this year’s state Report Card was the underfunding myth: “exposing the lack of a connection between funding increases and student performance.” (DeVos watchers will recognize this as one of her stock arguments.) It’s a claim based on ideology rather than research, but more importantly, more moderate Republicans no longer seem to be buying it. The revolt against Governor Brownback’s deep tax cuts in Kansas included business leaders who worried that starving the schools threatened the state’s future workforce and imperiled their ability to attract workers to the state. In Arizona, which ranks 48th in the country in education spending, business leaders recently announced that they plan to press for a big boost for the state’s schools, including raising teacher salaries. The state that topped ALEC’s education ranking has a teacher shortage so severe that schools are hiring teachers who lack any qualifications at all, even college degrees.
It’s a sign of the times that the education agenda at ALEC this year was almost exclusively focused on expanding private school choice: vouchers, education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships, a nifty way for big donors who share ALEC’s aversion to public institutions and the taxes that pay for them to undermine the former while avoiding the latter. All of that bipartisan happy talk about sending all kids to college and closing achievement gaps has largely disappeared. Instead, the ALEC agenda, indistinguishable from DeVos’ own, prizes school choice as an end unto itself. They envision a future where parents are freed — rom the education monopoly, from regulation, from greedy unions, and most importantly, from schools — to navigate an education marketplace that abounds in choices. It is also replete with money making opportunities, but that is not something that appears on the ALEC press releases.
As for how we’ll know when we’ve reached the future ALEC promises, as bright as the Arizona sunshine, well, that’s a bit vague. Trust families instead of regulators, goes the talking point. Or as DeVos’ spokesperson, Liz Hill, answered when pressed about the lack of transparency in many voucher programs: parents don’t need “more data sets . . . A child’s progress — or lack thereof — is fully transparent to his or her parents.”
DeVos wasn’t listed among the ALEC headliners this year, a line-up heavy on conservative has-beens like Newt Gingrich, William J. Bennett and Jim DeMint. But among this crowd she’s regarded as a conquering heroine. That’s because the right-wing in Michigan just realized a decades-long dream and a top priority for the DeVos family: not only did they succeed in making Michigan, the cradle of industrial unionism, a right-to-work state, they also killed teacher pensions. New teachers in the Mitten state, where teacher salaries dropped for the last five years in a row, will now fund their own retirement. ALEC called the move a win for teachers and taxpayers, but didn’t mention the part where taxpayers will have to cough up at least $255 million to “fix” a problem that the anti-public school crowd largely created. Ending teacher pensions, one of the last remaining benefits the state’s once-powerful teachers unions could offer their members, will only hasten the unions’ demise. In the words of the old Mastercard commercial: “priceless."
In a new book that examines the work of ALEC and other corporate lobbies in all fifty states, economist Gordon Lafer argues that the singular fixation upon crushing teachers unions is about much more than mere money. In virtually every community, schools represent the largest employer, providing something that is increasingly underheard of these days: decent wages, good benefits and the prospect of a retirement that doesn’t involve collecting cans. The presence of these large employers — schools, public universities, hospitals — raises the expectations of the public about what’s possible, Lafer argues. “ALEC’s vision of the future is actually really bleak,” Lafer told me recently. “That’s why so much of their legislative focus is on limiting what people are entitled to, especially in education.” The relentless effort to rid the world of teachers pensions, says Lafer, is also about lowering the expectations of everyone else.
ALEC’s agenda for remaking public education in all 50 states can be distilled down to a single word: unpopular. Actually, make that two words: extremely unpopular. There is no constituency for blowing up the schools, swelling class sizes, replacing teachers with tablets and lowering the standards of who can teach. There is no real constituency for shifting money away from public schools to private religious institutions, which is why ALEC-backed voucher programs in states like Wisconsin and Indiana mostly benefit students who’ve never attended public schools. The key to enacting a deeply unpopular agenda, as any ALEC-ster worth her salt can attest, is to keep the public as far away from it as possible, which is why DeVos’ hat tip to local control in her speech was so laughable. The states where ALEC has come closest to realizing its dream of defunding schools, shifting public monies into private coffers and crushing teacher unions are also the ones where efforts to preempt local democracy and shrink the voting franchise are in full flower.
Teachers who gathered in downtown Denver on the eve of DeVos’ appearance cited ALEC’s history of undermining local democracy and the Secretary of Education’s own antipathy toward public schools. As Suzanne Ethredge, who is president of the local teachers union, told the Denver Post: “My biggest fear is [DeVos] is going to destroy the public education system completely.”
The irony is, of course, that the school privatization experiment that’s well underway in Denver has been the work largely of “progressive” education reformers, Democrats for Education Reform chief among them. The local teachers union is weak and getting weaker, not because of DeVos and the right wing but because of anti-union Democrats. DeVos isn't a fan of the Denver model — charter choice, in her view, is a weak substitute for the real deal: publicly funded vouchers for private religious schools. Her visit to Denver shone a spotlight on ALEC's extreme education agenda. Now it's up to Democrats who've embraced school privatization themselves to explain how they're different.