The third piece examines how ALEC, through it’s Education Task Force, works with ALEC members in state legislatures to privatize, defund or dismantle public schools through charter schools, voucher programs and tuition tax credits. In Oregon, the two major charter schools, Connections Academy and K12 Inc. have, through their lobbyists, influenced the legislative branch to grant financial benefit and academic legitimacy to online schools with the effect of taking resources away from public schools, all under the guise of giving parents more “choice”.
- 3. The Assault on Public Education 14:35
YM – Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush delivering an education reform address to the American Legislative Exchange Council at their annual meeting in Chicago last year.
“What ALEC was talking about 20 years ago has sadly come to pass. In most places, we have an education system designed around the economic interests of the adults where academic achievement of the kids is secondary”
YM – The American Legislative Exchange Council, a free market, limited government non-profit has for many years been geared toward removing regulations in the interests of businesses, commerce and profits, Twenty years ago, the organization made the privatization of schools a top priority.
SB – Through its education task force, ALEC has flooded state legislatures with no less than 66 pieces of school reform legislation since the early 1990s. Their collective purpose, to attack the public school system through voucher programs, charter school expansion and tax credits to corporations that fund charter schools, so says Julie Underwood, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin.
“The ALEC archive as it relates to education shows a broad array of bills. But what you see is an early indication or an early interest in privatization of education. There are lots and lots of bills that talk about various ways to privatize or defund, dismantle the public schools. You have bills that are about charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, deductions, those kind of things that actually all put together really are just a push to privatize education.”
SB – Twenty one model bills from ALEC’s nine task forces made their way to the Oregon legislature just in 2011. That year was a bumper crop for ALEC. Seven of those were education related and by 2013, two more had been introduced. All of them came from Oregon House and Senate Interim Committees on Education. And that bums rush was part of ALEC’s strategy, according to Ms.
“They do have an interesting legislative strategy there. They keep giving advice to people in the states. And they say that in these four areas, you need to introduce a lot of bills. And you need to introduce the entire array of them all at the same time. So they analogize this to a game of whack a mole. So where you actually can introduce all sorts of bills. And they say if you do that, then the education opponents won’t be able to kill them all at one time, just like a game of whack a mole.”
SB – That House Interim Committee on Education was heavy with ALEC members including Jason Conger, John Huffman and Matt Wingard, And the bills their committee sponsored spanned the gamut for privatization of public education whether through de-legitimizing public schools with an arbitrary quality grading system, allowing children to attend a charter school outside of their resident district, online and virtual education options or restricting public school districts in how and when they may evaluate charter schools.
YM – Matt Wingard, former member of the Oregon legislature delivering a 2011 weekly address on the charter school bills introduced during the session.
“So some of the things that are in the legislation that we’re bringing this session, there’s a bill for full funding of charter schools, a bill to allow for multiple authorizers of charter schools so that say for instance community colleges could start charter schools there are a number of community colleges that have expressed interest in being able to do that. We also have a bill to create real clear A-F grading of our public school buildings so that you as a parent or a citizen would understand very clearly how your local public school is performing. As house republicans our bills are designed to increase standards in our public education system and as I said to increase choices for parents.”
YM – And although the titles sound very positive, and the descriptions promise better accountability for the public schools while more choices for parents, the intent of all of these pieces of model legislation was privatize public education by providing tax credits to corporations funding charter schools, remove restrictions for charter school operation and remove state authority to oversee charter schools. In Oregon, there are two education focused companies that have had ALEC affiliation, the Connections Academy and K12 Incorporated. Both of these companies have pushed a national agenda to replace bricks and mortar classrooms with computers and replace actual teachers with virtual teachers. In 2013, K12 national organization took in 848 million dollars from its business with 731 million coming from it’s public managed schools. And since many of those publicly managed schools are funded directly from taxpayer dollars, it’s revenue source is almost completely taxpayer based. But K12 has its critics, most notably on Wall Street. Last year, hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson said he was shorting K12 stock in a bet that the company would fail. He said that although the idea of virtual education had strong support from the right, K12 has posted poor academic results with dropout rates as high as 50%. K12 operates four network schools in Oregon – the Oregon Virtual Academy in North Bend, the Insight School of Oregon in Prinevillle and Portland and the Oregon iSchool in Lebanon.
SB – The story with the Connection Academy is equally interesting. A spokesperson for Connection Academy, based in Baltimore, Maryland, told the Center for Media in Democracy in July 2012 that it had cut ties with ALEC to “align our affiliations with organizations whose central focus is education.” However it’s possible that the real reason it left was the reason many other companies left ALEC that year, because of negative publicity over ALEC’s promotion of The Castle Amendment, otherwise known as “Stand Your Ground” gun laws. Connections Academy has also donated to the campaigns of several current and former legislators including Oregon ALEC member Sherrie Sprenger, who represents Scio, where the Oregon branch of Connection Academy or ORCA is headquartered, as well as Matt Wingard. Sprenger co-sponsored many of Wingard’s charter school bills.
YM – During his time in office, Wingard was an ardent supporter of privatization. He became a rising star in the state Republican party when he was elected in 2008. A former television journalist, Wingard represented District 26, which includes Sherwood and Wilsonville. His connection to ALEC has been known ever since Representative Gene Whisnant included his name on a list of current and former ALEC legislators that he gave to the Oregonian in 2013. The website ALEC Exposed has also revealed that Wingard was on the ALEC Education Task Force, and according to the Oregon Secretary of State, Wingard attended ALEC conferences in 2010 and 2011. However, his political career was derailed by scandal which ultimately led to him resigning his office in 2012.
SB – Wingard’s connection to the school’s national parent did not go unremarked. Some saw it as a clear conflict of interest. Wingard was named the Chair of the House Education Committee in 2011. And he was a member of the ALEC Education task force. In 2011 Wingard either directly sponsored or brought forward by committee all but one of the ALEC-inspired charter school bills. Curiously, many of Wingard’s charter school bills were lifted verbatim from ALEC model bill language but that connection was never openly admitted.
YM – Connections Academy has donated to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national non-profit founded by former Florida governor Jeb Bush in 2008. In 2011, public records requests showed interactions between the foundation and Chiefs for Change, another Bush-backed group which brought together state education leaders, as well as sitting state education officials. Chiefs for Change, much like ALEC, paired education officials with corporations profiting from privatized education, and provided them with policies originally written by ALEC. Both ALEC and the Foundation for Excellence in Education share staff or members, and the two organizations often collaborate. With both K12 and the Connections Academy, there is ongoing criticism over the idea of putting children as young a five in front of a computer screen rather than in a classroom with other students. Stephanie Saul in a 2011 New York Times piece pointed out that low paid teachers for such schools can have as many as 250 students at a time, but very poor interaction with them and their parents. Jeff Kropf is the President of Oregon Connections Academy and the state chair of Oregon’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-brothers funded conservative non-profit.
“We think that socialization is an important piece of the puzzle and the way it’s supposed to work is that, let’s say you want to participate in athletics like I did, football, basketball, baseball, track, whatever. That even though a child comes to ORCA and let’s say they’re from Salem-Keizer, they’re supposed to be able to go back to that Salem-Keizer school and participate in athletics and do those kind of things. Now it doesn’t always happen that way and that’s unfortunate but we work very hard trying to make sure there’s lots of opportunities to socializations so that people can the public high school experience for some of these students is really as good as we can possibly make it given that its a virtual, online charter school.”
YM – One of the issues around charter schools is funding with opponents accusing charter schools of getting equal funding per child without the overhead of public schools. This unobstructed flow of cash, some say, gives charters a license to be financially irresponsible with nearly 150 of 300 of new charter schools that start each year failing. Jeff Kropf or ORCA defends charter schools but admits there are problems.
“You know charter schools don’t have a quote unquote tax base. They do get funding, obviously, because we’re a public school. We do get funding but only through the legislature. So the Scio school district that charter’s us has a property tax funding base and they get funding both on the federal level and from the state level. So in fact, we don’t even get the same amount of money that the Scio school district does for their students. We actually get I think we’re at 85% of what a regular bricks and mortar school gets. So in some cases, at least in Oregon, I think that bad management is part of it. There’s no and this is one of the reasons why we have a professional management company that manages online charter schools. And yes, they are a for profit company out of Baltimore called Connections Academy. And they you know they’re professionals at this and very highly qualified. Everybody in their company that’s on the educational side of things, maybe not the IT side but the education side are all former professional educators from traditional public education. And so they have a very high commitment to a high operating standard and doing things the right way. With small charter schools that maybe get started up, those are local boards and maybe it’s a couple of local teachers who want to start a charter school that specialize in this or that. And maybe they don’t always have the best training, and that’s where charter school associations can be helpful.”
SB – Meanwhile, the Center for Education Reform ranked Oregon’s Charter School laws the 21st weakest in the nation out of 41 states. This is not to say that all charter schools do not work. Well run, well funded and well managed charters absolutely do work. They’re just in the minority. Margaret Raymond, a fellow with the libertarian based Hoover Institute, showed that a few hundred of the nation’s 6400 charter schools succeed in part from government accreditation. This works as an engine that drives quality schools in part, by attracting the celebrities and philanthropists that bring positive attention, prestige and eventual success to a school. But have charter schools helped make some public schools better?
YM – Reporter Emma Brown said in her 2012 story, “gone are the days when public schools could sit back and wait for students to show up on the first day of class. In this year of school choice, families have become consumers and educators have become marketers. Brown says charter schools are forcing traditional schools to think of families as customers.
SB – That is a sentiment shared by Christina Martin, an analyst with Oregon’s Cascade Policy Institute, a free market, limited government think tank, member of the conservative State Policy Network and ALEC partner. Like a third political party, Martin says charter schools are putting a do or die pressure on public schools that she says is making them better …
“Because public schools see people leaving with money. It’s expensive to lose kids so you have to do better. You have to. And where there’s a challenge people will work a lot harder to overcome that obstacle and to do better.”
YM – Brown says charter schools are forcing traditional schools to think of families as customers. Since 2008, scores of republican and democratic members and candidates for the Oregon legislature have received a total of nearly $50,000 in donations from K12 and Connections Academy combined. And although much of that ALEC inspired legislation introduced since 2011 has failed, many of those bills were reintroduced from earlier attempts. That that means vigilant voters and legislators fighting privatization efforts in Oregon can expect to see them again. This report was a collaboration between reporters Yana Maximova, Mike Klepfer, Sam Bouman and Don Merrill. The KBOO news director is Jenka Sodeberg. Hear other reports in this series on the KBOO website, KBOO.org.
Last update on October 23, 2014 reflects most recent changes.