"ALEC wants a better trained workforce, but its members do not want to spend more on public education. To arm Republicans against calls to do that, conservative think tanks have produced studies showing Florida teachers’ total compensation (including benefits) looks good when divided by the number of hours they are contracted to be on campus."
Matt Reed: Who really runs Florida education?
Corporations, lawmakers draft bills behind closed doors
In 2013, our Legislature will raise the stakes even further with standardized testing in schools.
New laws will require students to take more of their classes online to subsidize a school “choice” effort.
And with the 2012 elections behind them, Republican politicians will make a coordinated effort to portray teachers as overcompensated underachievers.
Our lawmakers will do and say those things in their next session because that’s the education agenda of a corporate-sponsored, members-only national association called the American Legislative Exchange Council.
ALEC calls itself a “state legislators’ think tank” committed to limited government, free markets and federalism. Its primary activity is to draft model legislation that its 2,000 legislative members can copy and introduce verbatim in 50 state capitals. ALEC also has dozens of corporate members that helped write and push bills nationwide on insurance, voting restrictions, prison privatization and what teachers can say about climate change in classrooms. They include Exxon-Mobil, AT&T, State Farm, Koch Industries, Wal-Mart, Pfizer and Kraft Foods.
I know ALEC’s agenda for Brevard’s public schools because I just read its 125-page “Report Card on American Education,” authored by research fellows from conservative think tanks such as the Goldwater Institute. ALEC produced its report in time to fuel discussion among politicians and executives at its closed-door “education academy” on Feb. 2 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Amelia Island.
Locally, ALEC members have included U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and U.S. Reps. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, and Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, when they served in the Legislature. State Reps. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and John Tobia, R-Melbourne, have attended ALEC meetings but aren’t members..
The next wave of corporate-sponsored school reforms will include two new planks:
• More “digital learning.” ALEC wants more online courses because they give students more flexibility and choices of classes regardless of where they live. ALEC’s report offers no evidence online classes improve education. But they cost less to deliver.
• New scrutiny of “return on investment.” ALEC wants a better trained workforce, but its members do not want to spend more on public education. To arm Republicans against calls to do that, conservative think tanks have produced studies showing Florida teachers’ total compensation (including benefits) looks good when divided by the number of hours they are contracted to be on campus.
“The smoke is only starting to clear from the legislative sessions of 2011, but this much is clear: Reformers scored unprecedented victories in the area of tenure reform, merit pay, public school transparency, charter schools, and school vouchers,” ALEC’s education report says.
The report card gives Florida a B+ for implementing high-stakes testing, grading schools and allowing school choice. Florida ranks second in the nation on its scale for education policy.
“This large Southern state with a majority-minority student population spends below the national average per student while leading the nation in academic gains,” ALEC says.
Notably, ALEC gives no credit to the classroom teachers, counselors and principals who actually achieved those gains.
Teachers the enemy?
Instead, ALEC’s report gives all of the credit to its reformers and to high-stakes testing and charter schools. Its opening paragraphs compare Republican legislators to the English who endured the bombing of London in World War II. It compares teachers and their unions to Hitler’s forces, who “overreached” in their assault and now must suffer the consequences.
“Organized in every state legislative district in the country, they put both paid and volunteer ‘boots on the ground’ during election season,” the report says. “The unions hire legions of lobbyists around the nation, enlist academics to defend their positions, and have very clear goals.”
The portrayal is offensive and factually inaccurate for Florida.
For example, one of ALEC’s favorite reforms in Florida are charter schools, designed to be free of unions and regulation. Yet, local and state data show charter schools have consistently underperformed regular old public schools. Mathematically, Brevard County could improve its achievement numbers just by closing all charter schools and sending the kids to traditional campuses.
Meanwhile, teachers have little power in a right-to-work state where they cannot strike and there are fewer Democrats than legislative committees in the Florida Senate.
I have no problem with Florida politicians meeting with business leaders or peers from other states to share ideas on “best practices.”
But on education, our politicians’ relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council has resulted in unaccountable, top-down governance crafted by corporate sponsors. The result is education laws rooted in conservative ideology and comic-book portrayals of bad teachers, not reality in our public schools.
ALEC should open its doors to competing ideas.