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Demonstrators Crash ALEC convention in Chicago, a city impacted by the privatization of public schools

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

We continue our series looking into ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, as they celebrate their 40th anniversary in Chicago. Six people were arrested Monday when protesters descended upon the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago to push back against the impending visit of ALEC.

Now joining us to talk more about the protest and the history of ALEC and its influence on public education around the country are two guests. We are joined by Julie Mead. She’s a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She researches, teaches, and writes about topics related to legal aspects of education. Her research centers on legal issues related to special education and raised by forms of school choice.

We’re also joined by Brendan Fisher. He is general counsel with the Center for Media and Democracy, publishers of and He has worked extensively on the ALEC Exposed project.

Thank you both for joining us.


NOOR: So, Brendan, let’s start with you. Give us the latest on the protest happening right now in Chicago.

FISHER: Sure. So today is the first day of the ALEC meeting in Chicago at the Palmer House, which is one of the nicest hotels in town in the [lu] just a few blocks from the lake. Yesterday, six people were arrested. There were smaller protests today, but I think there’s a much larger rally planned for tomorrow, with a number of environmental and civil rights and labor groups coming together and bringing in their voices against ALEC and the really broad agenda that it has implemented in the states to lower wage and create fewer environmental regulations and worse educational outcomes for the 99 percent.

NOOR: And the significance as far as the protesters are concerned that ALEC is having this meeting in Chicago, what can you tell us about what’s been happening in Chicago’s public education system over the last, you know, even 15, 20 years?

FISHER: Sure. Sure. Well, so Chicago has definitely been bearing the brunt of the education privatization movement. I mean, it does show to a certain extent how bipartisan the education privatization push has become. But it really–when you tie it back to where the source of a lot of this legislation, in many cases it’s very far-right groups that are trying to push an ideological and profit-driven agenda.

So if you look at ALEC, K12 Inc. is one of the top sponsors of this year’s meeting. K12 Inc. is the nation’s largest provider of online for-profit schools. And as one of the top sponsors of the ALEC meeting, it’s allying itself with the tobacco industry and with the oil industry and with the pharmaceutical industry, all of which are not something you would normally associate with good educational outcomes, not the sort of thing that you would typically expect of a school that is looking out primarily for kids.

This year you saw the Illinois Policy Institute, which is the state policy network think tank in Illinois, teaming up with K12 to push virtual charters in the state to try and get virtual charters established in 18 school districts across the state of Illinois. They were unsuccessful in that effort, but it did show how these different nodes in what you might call the right-wing infrastructure are working together to try and push an ideological and profit-driven agenda in many states, including Illinois, which has been typically regarded as a blue state.

NOOR: And, Julie Mead, I’m looking at your piece “A Smart ALEC Threatens Public Education: Coordinated efforts to introduce model legislation aimed at defunding and dismantling public schools is the signature work of this conservative organization.” What can you tell us about ALEC’s influence around the country and just about–just how it goes about exerting this influence?

PROF. JULIE MEAD, EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP AND POLICY ANALYSIS, UNIV. WISCONSIN – MADISON: Sure. I can handle that. The way that ALEC works is by bringing together state legislators with various private interests, including for-profit interests like K12. They write model bills, of which there is an entire educational portfolio. Those private interests then have significant influence on the development of those bills. And, in fact, that can’t be taken forward as a model bill until those both private and public members of any task force, the education task force or any of its subcommittees, sign off on it.

And so if you look at the portfolio of education model bills, you would find that they can be roughly categorized into four groups. One group is to influence market forces into education and all of its realms, including teacher education, for example. The second is to privatize education by introducing vouchers, for-profit charter bills or for-profit charter agencies and tax incentives of tax credits. The third is to increase student testing. And the fourth is to reduce or eliminate the influence of locally elected school boards and school districts.

NOOR: And so, Professor Mead, ALEC was one of the forces behind the push for vouchers around the country, and especially in Wisconsin, which became the first state where it was implemented. Talk about the history of the system in Wisconsin and what the impact has been in Wisconsin, especially over the past couple of years, when the right to collective bargaining has been taken away from many of the unions, the public education unions there.

MEAD: Well, as you said, Wisconsin got their first publicly funded voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which was enacted in 1990. And at that time it was a very limited experiment in the terms of the Supreme Court that first reviewed the bill. And at that time, it was limited to only 1,000 students or 1 percent of those enrolled in the Milwaukee Public School District. It required that any eligible student could have a family income of no more than 175 percent of the federal poverty level and that any participating private school had to have a majority of students attending through private tuition. So they could have no more than 49 percent of their student population there by virtue of a voucher. And, in fact, when it was first initiated, only nonsectarian schools could participate.

Since then, all of those controls, if you will, have been removed. So now there’s no limit to the number of students who can participate. To be eligible, it’s 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Schools can be completely–their entire student body population can be there by virtue of a voucher. And, in fact, the majority of schools do have 90 to 100 percent of their students attend by virtue of a voucher. And there is no longer a requirement that the schools, that the private participating schools be located within the city of Milwaukee. They can be anywhere.

The next push, then, was to add Racine to have a limited voucher program. And then most recently it’s been expanded now that–with a limited–at least to begin with–a limited manner to 1,000 students–excuse me–500 students initially across the state can participate in a voucher, a publicly funded voucher.

In terms of its impact on education, again this has been operational for more than 20 years, and research very clearly does not show that voucher schools do any better than traditional public school systems, and, in fact, sometimes worse. And even when you do those comparisons, you have to recognize the fact that the private schools don’t serve the same population, so they’re not required to serve children with disabilities to the same extent. Same thing with children who are learning English to the same extent. So all of those kinds of special needs populations remain in the Milwaukee public school district. That also then means that you’ve got a lot of money that flows to these private schools without the same kind of accountability.

NOOR: And the significance of Scott Walker’s antiunion bill being passed in Wisconsin which severely limits the power of public unions, including teachers unions, to collectively bargain, how has that impacted public education? It’s one of the efforts that ALEC also has supported.

MEAD: Well, just as you said, it’s a measure to make it much more difficult for public employee unions to operate. And, in fact, it creates a situation in which, because it’s harder for them to operate and because it’s harder for them to gain their membership, that then makes it more difficult for them to influence public elections.

NOOR: So, Brendan, at The Real News we’ve been closely following how private companies have been increasingly looking at public education, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year as one of the last untapped resources that they can get their hands on around the country. What can you tell us about the at least 139 bills or state budget provisions introduced by people who are getting support by ALEC around the country in just 43 states? And that’s just in the first six months of 2013.

FISHER: Yeah, that’s right. So there were actually–31 of those bills became law, but the number of bills that were introduced, so how much of a priority it is for ALEC and ALEC legislators to promote the privatization of education.

And like you mentioned, this is a big industry. Rupert Murdoch, who owns News Corp., which is the parent company of Fox News, has called it a $500 billion industry just waiting to be transformed. There’s a lot of money to be made when taxpayers are spending this much on trying to educate our children. You may not be surprised to find that News Corp.’s new education division, called Amplify, is an ALEC member. They are a part of the Education Task Force. They’ve been promoting policies to try and use a specialized Amplify tablet in schools which would certainly increase the profits of Amplify and News Corp.

You know, I think there’s two things connected to this push for the privatization of schools. It’s not–one part is profit. Clearly, Amplify, K12 are seeking to make as much money as they can on the back of taxpayers. But the other part of it is political. Many voucher programs are not–or many voucher schools are not unionized. And teachers unions are one of the biggest political forces in politics. They often support Democratic candidates. They’re often supporters of progressive causes. And in the post Citizens United world, as you’ve seen corporations being able to spend more and more money trying to influence politics, trying to advance their agenda, trying to influence policy, teachers unions and unions in general are one of the few counterweights to that corporate power. So the more that you can reduce the influence of unions, and teachers unions specifically, the more that you can expand corporate power. So that’s another piece that’s really at stake here, which really, to be clear, that should take second–should take the back seat to educational outcomes and making sure that our kids are educated. But when you’re looking at the motivations of the reasons that these bills are sweeping across the country, it’s not for the benefit of children; it’s for political purposes and to advance the profit motive.

NOOR: And finally, Professor Mead, let’s end with you. What are the lessons of Wisconsin that the rest of the country should be paying attention to as these same policies, like vouchers, spread throughout the country?

MEAD: Well, one of the things that I like to talk about is what’s public about public education, because I really do believe that that is precisely what is at stake, what is public about public education. And when we think about that publicness, I like to talk about five dimensions of publicness. There’s public purpose, public funding, public access, public accountability to communities, and the public curriculum. And as we push to privatize all of those, save for–perhaps except for public funding, are at risk. So the public purpose becomes muddied. Yes, there are some [incompr.] purposes are served by private education, certainly, but you also introduce private interests, private for-profit interests, and even private interests of wanting to control the nature of the education itself.

Public funding gets preserved in both systems, but without the same public access. So public schools have to serve all of the public in whatever form that public school child comes to us. Private schools, that’s not so. So they don’t have to serve children with special needs in the same way. They don’t have to serve English language learners and so forth. Public accountability to communities. We elect our neighbors as public school boards, and then we can petition those neighbors and talk to those neighbors to try to make sure that our schools reflect what we want them to reflect locally. We can do the same thing at the state level, on the federal level in terms of influencing educational policy. Once you shift into a privatization mode, there is no accountability to voters. There’s no way I as a voter with a child or I as a voter without a child can influence what’s happening at that private school once they’ve accepted the voucher. So we lose that public accountability to our communities.

And finally, public curriculum. If you think about it, over the many years that public schools have been in existence, we have continually, as a collective, through our representative governments at all three levels, defined what it means to be an educated citizen, what kinds of things should be taught in schools, what should be emphasized, how that’s going to–how a child’s going to progress through that curriculum throughout their educational journey. All of those things we have codified in various kinds of statutes, both state and federal, and of course local policies. And once you shift into a private school, all of that is lost, save for the very rudimentary you have to teach some reading, you have to teach some arithmetic, and perhaps you have to teach some science, and how many days you have to be in school or in session. So we lose all of that history of what we [inaud.] together to determine what it means to be an educated citizen.

NOOR: Julie Mead and Brandon Fisher, thank you so much, both, for joining us.

MEAD: Thank you for having me.

FISHER: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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