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The Other ALECs' K-12 Education Agenda Exposed

Wednesday, 25 July 2012 00:00 By Sarah Blaskey and Steve Horn, Truthout | News Analysis
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School street sign(Photo: brianjmatis)This is the fourth and last article in Sarah Blaskey's and Steven Horn's series, "The Other ALECs Exposed."

For over 30 years, corporate America and its allies on both sides of the political aisle have carried out an assault on US workers, pushing down wages, slashing benefits and busting unions.

But after decades of repeated and near-fatal assaults, the US labor movement has waged a fight back, with teachers in the forefront of the battle. Public schools have become the centerpiece of the struggle. Through an array of recent policy initiatives, influential policy wonks are attempting to restructure education fundamentally. According to Jesse Hagopian, a teacher and union activist in Seattle, part of this restructuring process is happening through model bills being enacted systematically in statehouses nationwide.

"Most famously ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] has been ghostwriting bills and passing them out to astroturf organizations around the country to put forward legislation that undermines teachers' unions and helps in this effort to restructure education based on test scores," Hagopian told Truthout.

But ALEC is not the only organization using model bills to push the corporate-friendly education agenda in the states. Rather, a few corporate-funded "Groups," or "Other ALECs," significantly influence education policy in every statehouse nationally. Aside from ALEC, the most influential Groups are two bipartisan trade associations, the Council of State Governments (CSG) and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

These entities ensure that teacher-blaming and union-busting policies constitute the "reform" agenda in the vast majority of states. Dozens of reports of cuts to states' education budgets accompanied by privatization campaigns demonstrate the effectiveness of this coordinated attack on public education.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 34 states and the District of Columbia cut education funding between 2008-2011. For public schools, the financial situation is indeed dire and has worsened in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. The Groups have used the crisis to accelerate the implementation of so-called "reform" policies.

"Eighty-four percent of school districts describe their funding as inadequate and the number of teachers laid off since the economic crisis began is likely to top three hundred thousand without federal assistance to the states," wrote Gillian Russom in the newly released book, "Education and Capitalism."

The economic crisis has created a rationale for ALEC and other stealth lobbyists to push privatization campaigns while claiming that they are necessary "reforms" for improving our failing education system, according to Brian Jones, a teacher and New York-based activist featured in the education documentary "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman."

"For the charter operators, 'reform' means more money, bigger salaries, etc. For the politicians, it means they get to shout to working and poor people about how they're reforming education, while doing a huge favor to wealthy, powerful interests," Jones told Truthout

A Battle Brewing in the Windy City

In early June, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which represents more than 26,000 of the city's teachers and other school employees, called a strike authorization vote. The vote took place in the immediate aftermath of what many see as labor's drubbing in the Wisconsin recall elections, which failed to unseat Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Adding to the challenge for CTU, in 2011, the Illinois legislature passed SB 7, which mandates that 75 percent of a teacher union's membership vote "yes" to authorize a strike, rather than a simple majority of voters. To put that into perspective, when the CTU organized a 91 percent voter turnout, it needed at least 83 percent of those members who voted to vote "yes" for its potential strike to be legal.

Though they might not have realized it at the time, the Chicago teachers, who ultimately voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if they do not reach an agreement with the school district on a raise to compensate for an increase in their working hours, were directly challenging the corporate model for education that CSG and ALEC have both promoted in recent legislative cycles.

National Precedent and IL SB 7

In October 2011, the CSG Suggested State Legislation (SSL) Committee - the well-respected bipartisan committee that selects state-level model bills for CSG to publish - voted to include IL SB 7 as a nationally distributed model bill in its 2013 SSL Volume.

The Illinois bill's summary statement acknowledges the similarities between SB 7 and legislation recently passed in other states that also aims to limit or altogether abolish teachers' unions. But the statement also claims that SB 7 is uniquely effective and explains:

"The legislation in Illinois was enacted by a Democrat-controlled legislature and signed by a Democratic governor, unlike in Ohio, Idaho and Wisconsin. Perhaps a more important difference is that the Illinois bill passed with support from the state's three largest teachers unions, which helped to counteract opposition from the rank-and-file or other unions." 

SB 7 was drafted by a consortium of corporate-friendly organizations, including Stand for Children and the Illinois Business Roundtable. Adding insult to injury, it was also endorsed by unions - including the CTU, though teachers later voiced strong concerns with the union leaders' position.

Mike Klonsky wrote that the three unions that originally signed onto the bill "accepted a spanking in order to avoid a real beat-down." The "beat-down" seems to reference what happened in Wisconsin after Walker's Act 10 passed and unions were stripped of the majority of their collective bargaining rights.

Due to the initial success of SB 7's more seemingly "humane" form of union-busting, overseen by a Democratic Party gubernatorial office, the bill's policies have now become bipartisan-endorsed model legislation, now destined for cookie-cutter replication across the country.

The bill's summary explains that the law "establishes new standards for teacher tenure, empowers school districts to remove poor performing teachers from the classroom and updates regulations about teacher strikes."

Tenure can only be achieved after four years, except for "top-rated" teachers who can take the three year fast track. SB 7 also set new guidelines, including a 120-day waiting period, designed to make going on strike nearly impossible for teachers' unions.

The implicit purpose of laws like SB 7: weaken the last and biggest bastion of organized labor in the country. Furthermore, SB 7 is merely one of a dozen or so CSG model bills from the past five years geared toward privatizing K-12 education and undermining teachers' unions.

The Corporate Playbook for Public Education

In Part Two of this series we described a "corporate playbook" for influencing state-level legislation through nonprofit organizations like ALEC and CSG. As a reminder, the playbook works approximately like this (with variants depending on the group):

  1. Donate to a "Group" (like CSG and/or ALEC), thus gaining access to the Groups' legislative membership.
  2. Use corporate money to get lobbyists on boards and task forces associated with the Group.
  3. Use lobbyists' positions on the task forces to set the education agenda for these Groups. Groups are where state-level legislators receive most of their job training.
  4. Use free time at educational events to "schmooze" powerful legislative leaders.
  5. Write, introduce and influence the passage of business-friendly model legislation through CSG and ALEC.
  6. Lobby your model bills into enactments in as many states as possible. 

This playbook process describes how state-level education policy is shaped by corporate America.

Most major Groups' education platforms reflect some aspect of the big-business model for education.

For instance, CSG seeks to build a "culture of entrepreneurship" and create a "skilled workforce" ready for 21st-century labor tasks. The NCSL Education Task Force promotes "flexibility," charter schools and "common academic standards" based on testing. ALEC's education task force promotes "efficiency" and "parental choice" in schools.

Sarah Knopp, a high school teacher of economics and an activist in her union in Los Angeles, told Truthout that these new policies pushed by the Groups "reflect both a restructuring of education and a continuation of the past."

Public education has always been a "sorting ground" for the next generation of workers.

"Around the time of WWII, when mass participation in industrial manufacturing became the norm, high schools began to resemble factories," she explained. "And now we're going through another shift that nevertheless maintains the same basic goal - conditioning the behavior of students and preparing them for today's economic hierarchy."

The Financiers of Education "Reform"

Why is education policy driven by near bipartisan consensus at the state level? Follow the money.

Many of the same foundations sponsor both CSG and ALEC, giving these billionaire donors disproportionate amounts of influence when it comes to state-level education policy. One of the most notable sponsors of the corporate-friendly education agenda is Bill Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation alone gave $400,000 to a CSG program dedicated to "reforming" public education and pushing charter schools. Gates also financially supports a CSG initiative to collaborate with Boeing to create "fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement." None of these contributions even account for Microsoft's sizable donations to CSG.

What interest does a billionaire like Gates really have in shaping education policy?

"Part of it is promoting free market ideology," explained Russom. "Charter schools, closing and 'econstituting' schools deemed to be 'failing,' judging schools and teachers based on test scores - all these measures help to promote an ideology of competition and undermine the idea of a public sector where people have a guaranteed right to education and other services. Major parts of the reform agenda of these business foundations are also intended to undermine unions."

In 2011, CSG launched a Gates-funded education initiative, Policy Academies for Newly Elected Legislators (PANEL), specifically targeting recently elected state officials. A fifth of all state legislators elected in 2010 had never been in office before. PANEL was designed to educate these legislators on how to transform education to make students "career ready." Democrats and Republicans co-mingle and feel right at home at PANEL.

Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, DC, public schools from 2007- 2010 and notorious for championing the charter school agenda, also spoke at the 2011 CSG Southern Legislative Conference, cheerleading for the charter school cause during her presentation to the Education Committee.

"Crafting a system that recognizes and rewards the best teachers and identifies those who are in need of improvement and either quickly accelerates their professional skills or moves them out of the classroom, helps to advance the opportunities for all children," Rhee said at the conference.

The 2012 CSG National Leadership Conference featured other lecturers including Ulrich Boser, senior fellow of the Center for American Progress, who spoke on the "return on education investment," and Adam Miller, of Astellas Pharma US, who introduced a new plan for teaching science in schools. Neither have actually been teachers nor worked in a school, yet they are the education "experts" nonetheless, tasked with educating the legislators in attendance.

Out of this process, corporations apparently hope to leave with business-friendly policy resolutions and model bills. Models from the well-respected and bipartisan CSG rather than partisan and now-stigmatized ALEC may be preferred.

CSG's "Model" for Public Education

CSG has a slew of recent, or soon-to-be released, models for public education legislation that deserve a brief primer.

Charter Schools

In the 2010 SSL Volume, CSG published model language intended to open states' regulations to allow virtual charter schools. Then in the 2012 SSL Volume, CSG published the "Charter School Collaborative"based on a 2010 Colorado enactment.

Despite Gates and Rhee telling legislators otherwise, a 2009 Stanford University Study showed that only 17 percent of charter schools examined "provide superior education" to their public school counterparts. This datum suggests educational improvement isn't the motive behind the charter school agenda.

Knopp explained that the 83 percent of charter schools that do not perform better than public schools "are simply there to grab market share and privatize a public good."

With regard to the 17 percent of charter schools that outperform public schools, Knopp offers the following explanation: "In order to remain competitive, the American economy needs a small percentage of highly skilled and intelligent workers. This is where those few high-performing charter schools come in. They skim the talent off the top."

Teacher Tenure/Education Identifier Initiatives

In the 2012 SSL Volume, CSG also promoted a model "Educator Identifier System," based on a Colorado pilot program designed to compile information on "teacher effectiveness" and use the information to close the "teacher gap."

The teacher gap is defined by the model as a "documented phenomenon that poor or minority students are more likely to be taught by less-qualified or less-experienced teachers than those students' more advantaged peers."

This type of legislation promotes a blame-the-teachers mentality that is at the heart of the education "reform" lobby. Knopp calls these policies "business accountability models" and says they have growing relevance in education today.

"Pilot programs to measure teachers based on their students' test scores, usually known as Value-Added Metrics, such as the ominously named Educator Identification System legislation in Colorado are almost everywhere," Knopp told Truthout.

CSG has also endorsed the "Value-Add Metrics" Knopp mentioned above as the solution to the testing question and wrote, "Value-added assessment assumes that teachers are the most important factor in student learning and that the amount of 'value' the teacher 'adds; to each student can be precisely measured."

Russom argues, however, that "Value Added Measures" are "completely unstable and inaccurate" in measuring any teacher's classroom success. She points to another motivator behind legislation that promotes so-called educator effectiveness - union busting, an easy way to get rid of unruly teachers. But the testing causes problems in the classrooms, too.

"They [standardized tests] rapidly lead to a narrowing of the curriculum - more test prep, less arts and authentic curriculum as teachers' own job security begins to depend on their students' scores," Russom said.

Innovation Zones

CSG also influences education policy by promoting models for Innovation Zones (2012) and Promise Zones (2010). Through these market-oriented programs, schools are forced to compete with each other for customers - aka students - and through this competition somehow create better learning environments for students.

"The problem is that the business model, based on profits and competition between 'winners' and 'losers,' and serving basic human needs are as incompatible in education as they are in the healthcare market," Knopp said, as she spoke of her experience with "Zone of Choice" policies in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where she teaches.

Labor at the Chicago Crossroads

All of the CSG models and resolutions combined - SB 7, charter school initiatives, teacher identifier and effectiveness programs based on standardized testing, "Innovation Zones," and so many other still unmentioned CSG policies - create a bipartisan rubber-stamp for business-friendly education laws.

Contrary to popular wisdom, elements within the Democratic Party are playing a key role in this state-level privatization campaign. These state initiatives dovetail with the federal agenda promoted to some extent by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, as recently covered in an in-depth three-part series on The Real News Network.

Exhibit A: Democrats for Education Reform is one of the key groups pushing for charter school expansion, standardized testing and school closings.

"The bipartisan Council of State Governments is pushing bills to promote these policies at the state level," Russom added. "So while the Democrats will continue to get millions in funding for their election campaigns from teachers' unions, they are carrying out the education agenda of the 1 percent that's destroying our schools."

This is why Russom thinks the CTU struggle is so important. This labor showdown is unfolding in Chicago, a hot bed for Democratic Party education "reformers" like Barack Obama and his former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, now the city's mayor. CTU's strike vote may undermine the effect of spreading bills like SB 7 to other states.

"If the CTU can win most of their demands through this kind of powerful organizing, it will set back the neoliberal agenda in Chicago and will also send a message to unions and communities that we can fight back and get broad community support for a different kind of agenda," said Russom.

Russom is not alone in the inspiration she takes from the CTU strike. Teachers and indeed many unionists in general are beginning to wake up, look to CTU's lead and ask, what can we do to fight back?

"I think what they are doing in Chicago has the potential to revive the labor movement in this era of Occupy when so many people see the problem in society as the 99 percent of us versus the one percent who have gotten incredibly wealthy at our expense," Hagopian said.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Steve Horn

Steve Horn is a freelance investigative journalist, and a researcher and writer at DeSmogBlog.

Sarah Blaskey

Sarah Blaskey is a freelance journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin, and a former volunteer at the WORT Community Radio Station in Madison.


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