State Rep. Chris Taylor
Op Ed

Inside ALEC’s War on Public Education

Its general is Betsy DeVos, keynote speaker at annual conference I attended.

By - Aug 8th, 2017 01:33 pm
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Betsy DeVos. Photo from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation.

Betsy DeVos. Photo from the Dick & Betsy DeVos
Family Foundation.

I arrived earlier this month to the forty-fourth annual conference of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Denver to the best possible greeting—scores of protesters marching around the host hotel. Yellow tape and police barricades blocked all visible entrances. I joined the protesters for a while before I ducked under some yellow tape and entered the hotel.

I did not sneak in; I was a registered guest. As a Democratic member of the Wisconsin state Assembly, I have been going to ALEC conferences for years—to see for myself how this rightwing group crafts model legislation to advance the interests of its corporate and ideological funders.

The issue of the moment for ALEC is public education—that is, undermining it. ALEC members are foaming at the mouth for the now-endless opportunities to further privatize public schools, long a central goal. When he was governor of Wisconsin in the early 1990s, Tommy Thompson implemented the first state voucher scheme in the nation—an idea he acquired from an ALEC conference.

Fittingly, the keynote speaker at ALEC’s July 19-21 conference was school privatization czarina Betsy DeVos. DeVos has spent most of her life using her billions to push privatizing public education through charter and voucher school schemes.

After bashing ALEC convention protesters, along with George Soros and the “radical left,” DeVos lauded the twenty states that have expanded privatization efforts this year. She encouraged more action to privatize public education, remarking that “no one has ever lost a seat because of choice,” a refrain I heard repeatedly (perhaps because of the millions of dollars the school privatization industry “invests” in supportive candidates).

DeVos promised to “completely review” (i.e., gut) President Obama’s “most harmful regulations,” including one to protect students from the predatory practices of for-profit colleges. She urged “empowering” teachers, though her hostility to teachers’ unions is well known. She called on states to “use the power of the purse” to “restore” free speech rights on campus, a popular conservative refrain as groups including ALEC push model bills to punish political speech and protesting on campus.

But DeVos’s philosophy was illuminated most by her quote of another former Education Secretary—Margaret Thatcher. The quote: “But who is society? There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

DeVos, like most of the people at ALEC, dismisses the collective good in favor of the individual benefit. Our public education system was designed to collectively educate the masses, in hopes that democracy would thrive. Her priority, and ALEC’s agenda, are otherwise.

Yet despite DeVos’s and ALEC’s rallying cries against the federal government’s “interference” and “overreach,” her efforts to expand vouchers will ironically come from .  .  . wait for it .  . .  a new federal program. According to the American Federation for Children, DeVos (the group’s former chairwoman) will push to implement a “federal choice tax credit” program, funded by taxpayer dollars.

What the voucher pushers never mention is that their privatization efforts have failed to do what they initially promised—increase academic performance and graduation rates for low-income, African-American kids. We need look no further than Milwaukee and decades of proof that students in voucher schools perform no better than children in public schools.

The private school industry’s response to this failure is to change the topic. It’s no longer about low-income students in low-performing schools. Now the focus is on middle-income families and the talking points are about parental choice.

Proponents know their universal voucher scheme, where public dollars flow directly to families rather than to schools, makes it impossible for a public-school infrastructure to survive. How do you maintain public school facilities and staff when you have no guaranteed funding?

For ALEC, it is all about tearing down our public-school infrastructure so corporate privatization efforts can move in and make a buck.

What you never hear at ALEC is any discussion about improving public education. There is never a mention of smaller class sizes, community schools, or recruiting and retaining a diverse pool of the best and brightest teachers. To DeVos, those who support public schools are “supporters of the status quo.”

The ABCs at ALEC stand for Anything But Children, as most attend public schools that ALEC members want to unravel. If ALEC wins, the losers will be children.

This column was originally publish by The Progressive.

Chris Taylor, D-Madison, represents District 76 in the Wisconsin Assembly.

Categories: Education, Op-Ed, Politics

41 thoughts on “Op Ed: Inside ALEC’s War on Public Education”

  1. George Mitchell says:

    Rep. Taylor asserts, “What the voucher pushers never mention is that their privatization efforts have failed to do what they initially promised—increase academic performance and graduation rates for low-income, African-American kids. We need look no further than Milwaukee and decades of proof that students in voucher schools perform no better than children in public schools.” Of course she is wrong. Systematic research by leading scholars such as the UW’s John Witte document at choice students in Milwaukee graduate at higher rates than their peers and pursue post-secondary education at higher rates. More recent research identifies higher levels of safety in “choice” schools and reduced likelihood that choice students will commit crimes. This is but a quick summary of the research. Rep. Taylor if flat-out wrong.

  2. George Mitchell says:

    Should be “that choice students” not “at choice students”

  3. Wisconsin Conservative Dgiest says:

    Why has tuition gone up 65 time what I paid in 1962 at UW?
    Education in Wisconsin. Spending has gone up tenfold since 1970, for a lot fewer students yet scores are down. In a dozen districts the Left wing education; Educrats have even failed to teach the kids to read in third grade.
    Only 15% can read at end of third grade, there for condemning them to life of not much.
    Course the Education lobby claimed they are not paid enough, so they cannot teach the kids.
    We are above average and way above what is paid in the world.

  4. Jack says:

    Wisconsin Conservative Dgiest, you can chalk most of those increases up to something you’ve probably been in favor of for a long time. That would be tax support for the universities, which have gone down continually for decades. In other words, when taxpayers aren’t paying the bills, a lot of those costs are transferred to students.

    I’ll forget the rest of your screed, which seems to have nothing to do with this article, except that private charter schools have made no difference.

  5. Mary Kay Wagner says:

    Actually George, research shows that when comparing apples to apples, choice schools are no better at educating children than public schools. In fact, all one needs to do is look at the great experiment in New Orleans, where the public school system has been systematically replaced by corporate privatized schools. The corporate schools are failing at a rate far worse than the public school system than they replaced. What choice research never talks about is that choice schools simply expel their failures, which means those students they could not manage wind up in the public school system. So too, they are selective in which students they accept. Many with special needs cannot get into choice schools. The public school system in places like Milwaukee is expected to educate the students rejected by choice schools with ever decreasing funds.

  6. CF says:

    If you haven’t read Democracy in Chains, do so. This book will show that the idea of school vouchers goes back to Brown vs Education when Virginia (part of the suit) went so far as to privatize schools giving vouchers to white students to avoid complying with Brown. Alec, the Koch series of non-profit foundations and those think tanks all support vouchers, thereby eliminating Public education. However the Koch no-profits has expanded into indoctrinating high school students by having seminars with each seminar being attributed to a scholarship to higher education, hopefully in a conservative private school. In addition the group that supports “Public Choice”, also holds seminars inviting “deserving undergrads and grad students in the fields of economics, politics and law” to understand the economics of “Choice” and the laws behind it. You can be invited back if you show “promise” until you become part of the cadre of “Public Choice”. This insidious creep has been going on since the 1970’s and has reached a crescendo since 2012 with the rise of the Tea Partiers and the elected politicians who make up the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus following the Credo of Public Choice. Unfortunately defectors from this Credo are targeted by their very own, not unlike a male lion killing its own mates offspring sired by another male, because they are not of their own issue or full belief.

  7. George Mitchell says:

    Mary Kay, the Milwaukee scholarship relevant to Rep. Taylor’s claim compares choice students with MPS peers and shows statistically significant gains in high school graduation and post secondary education. Your comments about selective admission have been refuted so often they merit no further comment.

    As for CF, I have spent more than three decades listening to inane comments of those who oppose expanded educational options for parents. His (or her) observations rank among the most laughable.

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    Great conversation George. One person’s comments aren’t worthy of response while another’s are laughable and again not worthy of response since you say nothing else. How seriously would you take someone if they replied to you that way? That’s how people like WCD argue here. They make no valid points and instead just call people dumb and not worth responding to.

  9. George Mitchell says:

    Vince, Mary Kay is simply wrong on the facts regarding Milwaukee. I did not say her comments were unworthy of a response. I pointed out they are wrong. As for CF, to link the current national school choice movement with an effort to resegregate is, well, laughable.

  10. Vincent Hanna says:

    No further comment, not worthy of a response, that seems pretty much the same to me.

    Why is it laughable, other than because you say so?

  11. George Mitchell says:

    Here’s a link to one of several comprehensive reviews of research relating to school choice.

    http://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/A-Win-Win-Solution-The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.pdf

    Anticipating the claim that it’s a “right-wing group,” I would encourage readers to move pass that rote talking point and actually read the report. It cites a wealth of research, much of it peer-reviewed and published in scholarly journals.

  12. George Mitchell says:

    Vince, it’s laughable because the demonstrable evidence shows no re-segregating effect. And as to intent, yes it is laughable to suggest that education choice reform leaders such as Howard Fuller and the Black Alliance for Educational Options have been duped into a conspiracy that really seeks to undo Brown v Board.

  13. Vincent Hanna says:

    So it’s not fair to think The Friedman Foundation has an agenda?

    I can also link to comprehensive studies George.

    Vouchers do not improve student achievement, Stanford researcher finds: http://news.stanford.edu/2017/02/28/vouchers-not-improve-student-achievement-stanford-researcher-finds/

  14. George Mitchell says:

    For at least 25 years Martn Carnoy has been the go-to academic for criticism of school choice. When a favorable study is issued reporters call him and he routinely offers a critique of studies that he might have had a day or less to review. Alex Molnar would be another example….something of a Carnoy wannabe. The Carnoy “study” you cite is not original research. It is a review of other studies passed through the prism of a pre-ordained agenda.

    The Friedman study lists actual original research, much of it peer-reviewed and published in leading journals. That research is a world apart from the kind of review Carnoy conducted.

    I have had the experience of going through peer review for a paper on collective bargaining published by the Brookings Institution. It can and should be rigorous. I have then had the experience of people with scholarly affiliations writing what purports to be criticism of that research. Turns out some of the “professors” were on campuses financed by teacher union grants.

    I erred in spending so much time on this comment string and will leave it at this: Rep. Taylor’s claim about Milwaukee is demonstrably false. That was my original point and it has not been refuted. All the other chatter is nothing more than rehearsed sound bites reinforced by cherry-picked Google searches.

  15. Vincent Hanna says:

    Oh so your source is totally objective and trustworthy and any source criticizing voucher schools is biased and untrustworthy. Funny how that works.

  16. Vincent Hanna says:

    “In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

    Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new state voucher programs, found that vouchers hurt student learning.”
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/upshot/dismal-results-from-vouchers-surprise-researchers-as-devos-era-begins.html?_r=0

  17. Reasonable says:

    Instead of holding the mantle of fighting choice schools, I’d love to see the supporters of MPS work harder to provide more innovate approaches to improving education on a wide scale. The few ideas we see take years to implement and even then are so limited as to not have much of an impact on the district performance as a whole. At least through charter and voucher schools we have an opportunity to try new systems of education at dozens of schools and reach a wide array of students throughout the city (and even state now!). Best of all, no one is forced to participate and it is done with a net savings for tax payers.

    I wish there was less arguing over money and expansion of systems and more time exploring what schools are showing success so it can be emulated.

  18. George Mitchell says:

    Reasonable is aptly named.

  19. Vincent Hanna says:

    “The few ideas we see take years to implement and even then are so limited as to not have much of an impact on the district performance as a whole.”

    This is understandable. It is incredibly difficult to rapidly change the performance of a large school district. Read The Prize for an example of this.

  20. Reasonable says:

    I agree, Vincent. This is why it is so advantageous to have many organizations focused on unique strategies to improve education.

  21. Vincent Hanna says:

    Are you drawing a distinction between charters and vouchers? Charters try new things and unique strategies, but primarily vouchers just allow (mostly middle-class) kids to attend a religious school.

  22. George Mitchell says:

    Vince,

    with this canard you’ve sucked me back in

    “primarily vouchers just allow (mostly middle-class) kids to attend a religious school”

    do you have even a clue about who uses and has traditionally used the milwaukee choice program?

  23. Vincent Hanna says:

    “Seventy-five percent of eligible students who applied for taxpayer-funded subsidies to attend private and religious schools this fall in the statewide voucher program already attend private school.” http://archive.jsonline.com/news/education/75-of-state-voucher-program-applicants-already-attend-private-school-b99274333z1-259980701.html/

  24. George Mitchell says:

    Vince,

    A family of four must make less than 45,000 to be eligible for the statewide program that you cite.

    “Mostly middle class”?

    In Milwaukee and Racine the cap is in the 70s but the majority of families actually are under 50K. Mostly middle class?

    You make stuff up.

  25. George Mitchell says:

    Let’s just remember Vince’s statement as he soon tries to pivot:

    “primarily vouchers just allow (mostly middle-class) kids to attend a religious school”

  26. Vincent Hanna says:

    Also Fuller has become critical of vouchers. “The free-market ideas upon which the voucher program was founded—that academically superior schools will thrive because parents will choose them over lousy schools—has not been borne out over the past two decades.”

  27. Vincent Hanna says:

    I didn’t make anything up George. You were the one who said you were done here.

  28. Vincent Hanna says:

    “Wisconsin has expanded its choice program statewide and to middle-income families, more students have been using vouchers.” http://wuwm.com/post/how-wisconsins-choice-program-affects-public-school-funding#stream/0

    That isn’t the original intent, to help middle-class families. Fuller has said as much.

  29. George Mitchell says:

    So…..

    Vince misstates who is eligible for school choice. I point out his error. He says, not fair. Remember, here is what Vince said,

    “primarily vouchers just allow (mostly middle-class) kids to attend a religious school.” But it’s not true.

  30. Vincent Hanna says:

    A married couple with two children can currently earn $78,637—far more than the median U.S. family income of $52,250—and still send them off to private schools at the public’s expense. Polly Williams put it bluntly in a 2013 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “They have hijacked the program.”

  31. George Mitchell says:

    And Vince can’t keep,up to date with Howard Fuller, who recently urged Legislature to make lower and working class families eligible statewide, not just in Milwaukee and Racine.

  32. Vincent Hanna says:

    “Seventy-five percent of eligible students who applied for taxpayer-funded subsidies to attend private and religious schools this fall in the statewide voucher program already attend private school.” http://archive.jsonline.com/news/education/75-of-state-voucher-program-applicants-already-attend-private-school-b99274333z1-259980701.html/

    How were 75% paying for private school George?

  33. Vincent Hanna says:

    That’s great George. Doesn’t change his criticism of vouchers and who they were intended for in the first place.

  34. George Mitchell says:

    Vince said choice goes “primarily” to middle class kids and cited an outstate anecdote to make his point.

    But outstate the cap is 45,000 for a family of four.

    in Milwaukee and Racine the cap is $78k. That’s the cap. The majority of families are under 50K.

    But Vince said “primarily.” And then he tried to use Fuller, but Fuller wants working class families statewide to be eligible.

  35. Vincent Hanna says:

    Yes I cited Fuller’s criticisms of vouchers benefiting not the poor as originally intended but families making $78,000 a year who already had children attending private school. That is accurate.

  36. Vincent Hanna says:

    Robin Vos agreed that too many students who applied for vouchers were already attending private school without taxpayer help. http://archive.jsonline.com/news/education/gop-eyes-new-plan-for-funding-voucher-school-expansion-b99501684z1-304048701.html/

  37. Vincent Hanna says:

    My original intent was to say that vouchers have mostly (75%) benefited those already attending private school without taxpayer assistance, which, as Fuller has stated, was not the original intent of vouchers. That is totally and completely accurate.

  38. George Mitchell says:

    Vince pivots from saying the families are “primarily” middle class on learning that in the statewide program they are low income and in Milwaukee and Racine the majority of families are low income

  39. George Mitchell says:

    New error:

    “My original intent was to say that vouchers have mostly (75%) benefited those already attending private school without taxpayer assistance, which, as Fuller has stated, was not the original intent of vouchers. That is totally and completely accurate.”

    Wrong. The overwhelming majority of voucher students were not previously in private schools….to say so is “totally and completely” inaccurate…..a subset of voucher students outstate previously were in private school. So it is wrong to say they were “primarily” middle class and wrong to say they “mostly” were already in private school.

    Wrong. And wrong again

  40. Wait A Minute, Chester says:

    George, all due respect, but I think you need to support your statements with more than smug assertions. I get that you’re a self-identified “expert” in this area, but I just don’t see a lot to what you write here beyond snide retorts.

    Can you point us to whatever you wrote for the Brookings Institution?

  41. George Mitchell says:

    Chester,

    1. Rep. Taylor said, “What the voucher pushers never mention is that their privatization efforts have failed to do what they initially promised—increase academic performance and graduation rates for low-income, African-American kids. We need look no further than Milwaukee and decades of proof that students in voucher schools perform no better than children in public schools.”

    This is untrue. For one of many scholarly reports that refute this claim, see:

    Cowen, Joshua, David Fleming, John F. Witte, Patrick Wolf, and Brian Kisida. 2013. School Vouchers and Attainment: Evidence from a State-Mandated Study of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program. Policy Studies Journal 41: 147-168.

    2. Vince first said voucher students are “primarily” middle class. That is untrue.

    3. Vince said that what he meant to say was that most voucher students previously attended private school That is untrue.

    4. I was the principal research and author of a chapter in this Brookings book:

    https://www.brookings.edu/book/conflicting-missions/

    5. The Brookings book was heavily peer reviewed. Several reviewers questioned my assertions and sought verification through the book’s editor, the highly respected Tom Loveless. I successfully responded to all challenges. The Brookings chapter grew out of a presentation I made at a Harvard University conference on education.

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