Outside interest groups, such as ALEC, propose bills that siphon tax dollars away from public schools, chip away at the teachers’ association and remove local control from District Boards of Education. Because of its influence, knowing where ALEC comes from, who funds ALEC, and who is involved is important.
What is ALEC?
The American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC) is a national organization that works with businesses and legislators to write laws to help the business and/or investment community. ALEC was started in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, the Heritage Foundation founder. ALEC is registered with the IRS as a charity (501c3) organization, but there is an active complaint of tax fraud from Common Cause, claiming that ALEC acts primarily as a corporate lobbying group. About 1,000 times a year, according to ALEC, a state legislator introduces a bill from its library of more than 800 models. About 200 times a year, one of them becomes law.
There is a cloak of secrecy around ALEC. ALEC does not publish a list of model bills, nor the full content of its model bills (however, the Center for Media and Democracy published ALEC’s library). ALEC doesn’t publish a list of its members—legislators or companies (but we’ve found out ALEC members from other sources). So often, the sponsor that wants the model bill language presented to legislative committees gets to remain anonymous as the bill is worked. ALEC workshops are open to the press; task force meetings are closed. ALEC does not disclose which corporate member sponsors a model bill.
Although ALEC is registered as a non-profit charity with a purpose of informing, in essence, it makes national policy, state by state. ALEC has an active task force on public education. This task force develops model bills that mostly will lead to private companies taking public tax dollars to educate our kids and make a profit. ALEC produces bills that it can hand over to legislators to submit in committees to consider and vote on.
Follow the Money
Corporations fund almost all of ALEC’s operations, although ALEC is somewhat evasive about who the corporate members are that fund almost all of ALEC’s 2014 $7.7 million expenses. Corporate members pay between $7,000 and $25,000 for annual membership. And to participate in any of the nine ALEC task forces, there is an additional $2,500-$10,000 fee each year. A list of twenty companies admit that they joined ALEC to influence legislation and gain access to lawmakers, which are lobbying activities. As a charitable organization, ALEC cannot lobby as its primary function. (In 2013, ALEC created a spin-off organization, the Jeffersonian Project, with the stated purpose of lobbying efforts.) In addition to corporate membership dues, ALEC receives grants from foundations such as Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Koch-managed Claude R. Lambe Foundation, and the Coors family Castle Rock Foundation. Koch Industries leadership has chaired ALEC’s corporate board and has served on its board for over fifteen years. David Koch founded Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which supports many ALEC bills and ideas.
In contrast to corporate membership, legislators pay $50 annual membership dues. Legislative members can attend the annual ALEC conventions in August for substantially less than corporate members. And ALEC gives “scholarships” to legislators to help pay for travel expenses for not only the member, but the member’s family as well. In 2011, ALEC spent over $600,000 to subsidize lawmakers’ travel. This could also include childcare for the duration of the convention for $250. In 2009, over 1,000 children of legislators were cared for during the convention, based on IRS reports. ALEC loses money on its annual conventions, but the connections private industry makes with legislators through conference presentations, and then golf games, dinners and other events are priceless to the corporate ALEC members.
Where do ALEC model bills show up, and how does the process work?
ALEC has an Education Task force to privatize public schools, weaken teacher unions and lower teaching standards to serve for-profit interests. “Public education reform bills” typically target voucher programs, dissolution of the teachers’ union agreement, or a pay-for-performance plan (“teacher merit pay”). In 2015, at least 172 corporate-driven education privatization measures reflecting ALEC model bills were introduced in 42 states*.
The strategy ALEC typically takes is to first find fault with academic achievements in public schools to justify vouchers. Then they propose free market solutions (“competition”), which drain money away from the state’s general fund or school funding and divert those monies to private schools. None of the model ALEC bills include provisions for data collection to compare performance to make sure the “competition” has actually resulted in better outcomes. Good public policy delivers transparency and accountability. These laws make education a private commodity, rather that a public good.
Who from the Blue Valley School District area, in the Kansas legislation is affiliated with ALEC (that we know of)?
You can see ALEC’s influence throughout the state. The economist that advised Governor Sam Brownback on his “glide path to zero” tax policy, Arthur Laffer, is also an ALEC board member. Laffer’s starve-the-state policy that Brownback adopted has resulted in schools facing end of year budget cuts, forcing schools to close early or districts to draw from their reserve funds. At that point in the year, all the contracts have been signed and the money is committed. Schools have few choices that would be effective and shutting down operations early saves utility expenses, perhaps school lunch expenses.
The ALEC influence reaches beyond the governor’s mansion.
Of the 165 Kansas House and Senate members, forty-eight, or 29%, are ALEC members. ALEC hosted its 2015 conference in San Diego and Kansas paid for 14 legislators to attend; more attended but covered their own expenses. The Blue Valley area legislators that had the state pay for at least part of their conference expenses include Kleeb (Chairman of the House Taxation Committee), Todd (also an ALEC member), and Lunn. Speaker of the House Ray Merrick, who is also a board member of ALEC, attended as well but did not have the state pay for any of it.
How has ALEC influenced public education legislation in Kansas?
You can see the ALEC playbook at work in Kansas if you look at the past few years of laws. In 2014, House Bill 2506 contained several measures to advance the privatization of education with ALEC toolset. It narrowed the definition of “teacher,” so that only instructors could be terminated without due process and administrators could not.
This bill also created The Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program Act, a version of “vouchers,” using poverty as the initial criteria? to divert funds away from local public schools into private schools. In 2015, $108,384 was funneled into religious schools, and corporations were awarded an income tax credit (not deduction, but credit—reducing the tax liability for that year) for 70% of the amount contributed for scholarships.
Sometimes legislators push ALEC ideas through by using unusual and opaque tactics. State Representative Melissa Rooker (R, Mission) relayed how this bill was passed, ““The Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship bill was debated and killed on the House floor in 2013. It had a new hearing in the Education Committee during the 2014 session, but was never voted out of committee. Without support to move the bill through the legitimate process, this provision was stuffed into HB 2506 in the dark of night.
“Corporations are set to receive a massive new tax credit at the expense of our children. No new law was needed for a corporation, or individual for that matter, to take a charitable deduction for contributing to a non-profit organization that grants scholarships.” This isn’t philanthropy, this is tax avoidance. Data is not collected to identify how scholarship students perform in the private school. Without performance data, the public will never know if this program has a good return on our tax dollars.
In the 2015 tax year, seven businesses were granted tax credits in the amount of $543,200 for the scholarship program, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue. That’s money that is missing from the State General Funds. Of the 149 students that had applied and were eligible for the scholarship, 128 students, or 86% would attend a private Catholic school instead of public school. Leawood and Overland Park schools that have applied to be recipients of this scholarship money include Nativity Parish, St. Michael the Archangel and St. Thomas Aquinas. Do these well-off schools/churches need public assistance to accept and provide education for low-income children?
In ALEC playbook style, now that this program is in place, legislators chip away at the original justification for the scholarship program and eliminate the eligibility restrictions of Title 1 focus or “priority” schools. In June 2015, House Bill 2109 expanded the voucher-like Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The new law eliminates the use of an intermediary grant service organization so that tax dollars can now go directly to private (and religious) schools. And, it removes the requirement that a student waive special education services (so the student can still get those services from the public school district). The Blue Valley legislators that voted to remove even more money from public schools by voting for this bill include: Senators Denning, Melcher and Representatives Kleeb, Lunn, McPherson, Merrick, Rychman, Jr, Schwab and Todd.
Then, in the 2015-2016 legislative session, House Bill 2457 proposed broader reasons to divert money away from public schools, with weakened targets defining “poverty” and a nearly unlimited cap for how many tax dollars could be diverted. This bill hasn’t been voted on yet, but retains a place on the calendar.
Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) AND EDUCATION “REFORM”
KPI (Kansas Policy Institute) is a free market based “think tank” that devotes a great deal of effort to undermining confidence in the Kansas education system and claiming it is overfunded. It appears to be closely related to Americans for Prosperity and is part of ALEC’s State Policy Network. KPI’s president, Dave Trabert, is on the ALEC tax policy task force and is a frequent speaker in the legislature. Though they don’t often say what they’d like to see in Kansas, they have recommended our legislature adopt multiple forms of “scholarships”, tax credits, charter schools, home schooling, online learning, A-F grading of schools, alternative teaching certification, social promotion ban (aka 'third grade retention') and incentives for success. Many of these reforms are also part of the misguided “reform” efforts we’ve seen fail in multiple states with a heavy ALEC presence. If you look at the list, you see much of their great solution for schools is to reduce funding for our public schools and take kids out of them.