Yesterday we talked about the Students First PAC, which funnels money from mega-millionaires and billionaires, often from out-of-state, into the campaigns of candidates promising to privatize public education. Once those politicians are elected, another organization called ALEC stands ready to help them craft legislation specifically intended to do just that.
ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a national organization of corporations and state legislators. The corporations approve pre-packaged legislation designed to benefit their industries and have the legislators introduce those bills – sometimes word for word – at the state level. ALEC’s corporate fingerprints are all over state legislation from coast to coast, on issues ranging from voter ID laws, to anti-immigration efforts, environmental protection erasures, and NRA-backed “Stand Your Ground” bills. In education, the group is active in trying to introduce “school choice” bills, especially for vouchers and tax-credit programs, both of which channel money to private schools.
The organization was started in the 1970s, but it has been hard to piece together their state-by-state work until recently. And the emerging picture is ominous. A new website, ALEC Exposed, went live last summer with the help of a whistle blower. It contains over 800 “model” bills and resolutions that are fundamentally reshaping our democratic process as corporations secretly craft and vote on legislation without any public disclosure.
But it is the “Stand Your Ground” legislation that has recently caught the public’s attention with the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida: that legislation, drafted by ALEC and passed in many states, was cited as the reason the police initially refused to arrest the shooter, George Zimmerman. [The Atlantic, April 14, 2012] People have naturally started asking how that legislation wound up on the books and are connecting the dots.
Those dots also draw a straight line between ALEC and new education laws. For instance, ALEC has been especially active in pushing for so-called “Parent Trigger” laws that permit schools to be turned over to private charter school companies. Never mind that parents at the first schools targeted in California say they were tricked into signing petitions to trigger the change, New York is now considering the same ALEC-approved legislation. [Read more about Parent Trigger laws at Parents Across America.]
Having corporations write and vote on our laws undermines the very essence of democracy. But even more insidiously, once those laws become established on a state-by-state basis, their underlying rationale bubbles up to federal policy. And with enough states on board, ALEC effectively controls the national dialogue, making it seem that there is broad national consensus on policies such as voter ID bills. [See why we said “There Goes $11-million for our Schools” when Pennsylvania passed just such a law last month.] In reality, the public is not even aware of the back-room deals going on, much less participating in any kind of consensus-building discussion around these crucial issues.
Make no mistake: these are back-room deals with corporations buying sustained access to our legislators. In Pennsylvania, ALEC issued a guide helpfully pointing out how legislators could get around our troublesome constitution, which prevents public money from being spent on religious schools. (This is the Blaine Amendment which says, “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.” PA Constitution Article 3, Section 15.) ALEC notes that, “Both tax credit and voucher programs are school choice options for Pennsylvania,” and that the Blaine Amendment “can be avoided entirely by funding vouchers from other government revenue.” Note to us: be on the lookout for tricky revenue games that pretend that some public money can be spent on vouchers.
The good news is that more companies are starting to feel the piercing gaze of public scrutiny in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Social media campaigns have “outed” a number of corporations and pressured them into resigning from ALEC, including Kraft, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and Intuit. Two weeks ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that they would withdraw financial support from ALEC, where they had been supporting work with state legislators on teacher effectiveness (also the subject of their local grant to the Pittsburgh Public School District). The Gates Foundation granted $375,000 to ALEC over the past two years, but has cut all ties after becoming the target of an online petition that gathered over 23,000 signatures in just a few hours. [Roll Call, April 9, 2012]
However, ALEC is still strong and has plenty of support among Pennsylvania legislators who introduce “model bills” pretending that they wrote them. For example, Rep. Matt Baker (R, Bradford, Tioga) introduced an ALEC bill, “Freedom of Choice in Healthcare Act,” written by healthcare industry lobbyists designed to actually derail implementation of healthcare benefits. Rep. Seth Grove (R, York) claimed he wrote the “Council of Efficient Government Act,” but it was actually written by corporations hoping to privatize public services for their own gain. And Sen. Mike Folmer (R, Lebanon) pretended that the “High-Risk Health Insurance Pool Act” was his own work. [Investigation by Keystone Progress, August 2011.] As a teacher, I give them all F’s for plagiarism and recommend they be expelled.
And there are more. While it is difficult to determine precise affiliation with such a shadowy organization, last fall the Daily Kos identified 36 members of ALEC in the Pennsylvania legislature (and they are sure there are many others). From Southwest PA, these include Rep. Mike Turzai and Rep. John Pippy. On this Election Day (you ARE voting, aren’t you?), I leave you with the full list to ponder the question: What happens when we allow corporations to purchase our candidates and then write our laws?
David J Brightbill
John R Evans
Robert J Flick
Stewart J Greenleaf
James D Greenwood
Robert C Jubelirar
Michael A O’Pake
John E Peterson
John M Perzel
Joseph R Pitts
Donald E (Buz) Snyder