Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, on Thursday in Denver, but protests from left-wing activists and teacher groups started Wednesday.
Hundreds marched from the state Capitol in Denver to the Hyatt Regency, the site of the speech, with signs reading: "Dump Betsy DeVos," "Take Devouchers Elsewhere" and "Stop School Privatization!"
DeVos' speeches have drawn notable protests before, as when she gave the commencement address at a historically black college. This time, her entire policy agenda is at issue. Ties between the DeVos family and ALEC go back decades. And there is barely any daylight between ALEC's education policies and the ones DeVos has advanced in her role as secretary.
Inez Feltscher, director of ALEC's education policy work, tells NPR Ed that DeVos "has been a wonderful champion for school choice both before and after becoming secretary of education, and advancing educational choice is one of the key issues we work on here at ALEC."
Every year ALEC brings together state legislators, free-market conservative lobbyist groups and corporate sponsors. Currently listed on the "leadership" page of its website are executives from the insurance, pharmaceutical, energy and telecom industries, as well as Don Lee, a former Republican legislator from Colorado turned head lobbyist for the for-profit online education company K12 Inc.
Together, these groups collaborate on model legislation. ALEC has a track record of getting the laws that it writes on the books in dozens of states with few changes.
"We see the same pieces of legislation being proposed in state, after state, after state," says Julie Underwood, an endowed chair in education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has been investigating ALEC's actions in education for the past five years. She has tracked versions of ALEC bills through public records in state libraries.
In education, says Underwood, ALEC backs "vouchers, vouchers, vouchers," with variants such as education tax credits and tax-credit scholarships. They have written policies that make it easier to open charter schools, and to run for-profit and virtual schools. Other model bills weaken teacher tenure and other protections associated with unions, and also promote digital learning.
ALEC created the original school voucher bill in 1984. Free-market economist Milton Friedman, widely credited as the originator of the idea, spoke at the annual gathering in 2006. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, an organization critical of ALEC, Friedman said the ultimate goal was "abolishing the public school system," but that vouchers form a "politically feasible" way of getting there.
He argued that instead of using government money "to finance schools and buildings," money should go directly to parents, "so the parents can choose a school that they regard as best for their child."
During her speech today, DeVos also drew that distinction between supporting schools and supporting individual students. She displayed a critical Tweet about her from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest teacher union, and said:
"They have made clear that they care more about a system – one that was created in the 1800s – than about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students. And they are totally wrong. What, exactly, is education if not an investment in students?"
Her rhetoric was more fiery than it's been since she assumed her post, as she talked about a "fight", a "struggle," and being on the "front lines". She invoked Margaret Thatcher's famous line that "there is no such thing" as "society." And she defended her decision to push reset on two higher ed regulations, gainful employment and borrower defense to repayment. She's being sued by 18 states and D.C. for the latter move.
ALEC releases an annual "report card," ranking states by to how far they have gone in adopting policies ALEC supports. The state's friendliness toward charter and voucher schools gets the most weight; the list also includes test scores, deregulation of home schooling and access to technology in the classroom.
States that top other lists for student performance, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, earn a C and C-minus on this list. Head of the class are Arizona, which has "one of the most expansive school-voucher programs in the nation," and Florida, which has been called a "choice mecca." The connection between promoting vouchers and technology in the classroom may not be obvious. The common thread is a quest for profit, argues Underwood, the scholar who researches ALEC. "If you diminish the public system, the money will flow to private for-profit providers."
One model bill introduced in 2005, the "Virtual Public Schools Act," provides a particularly clear benefit to companies like K12 Inc.
Per ALEC's website, the policy says "virtual schools" that provide instruction completely online should receive the same state resources per pupil as a public school that must provide classrooms, transportation and lunch. This despite recurring questions about the performance of many online for-profit schools.
DeVos' ties to ALEC and K12 Inc are longstanding. The organization she founded and led, the American Federation for Children, has long been listed as a financial contributor to ALEC. She and her husband, Dick DeVos, have disclosed that they owned stock in K12 Inc. And Richard DeVos, Betsy DeVos' father-in-law, received ALEC's "Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award" in 1993, for his promotion of market-based school reform.
Still, the timing is interesting. Recent studies have shown mixed-to-negative results for voucher programs and there have been successful fights against voucher expansion even in staunchly red states like Texas. And, House Republicans have just rejected the school choice expansions in Trump's initial budget request.
If school choice does increase on DeVos' watch, it is likely to happen as it has been happening for decades: state-by-state, rather than on the federal level, with ALEC's guidance along the way.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is going to be speaking to the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC in Denver today. And her appearance drew hundreds of protesters who marched yesterday from the State Capitol Building to the hotel that is hosting this event.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Resist. Resist. Resist.
GREENE: Resist they are saying. Now, for more on ALEC and why these protesters are yelling resist and are very upset, let's turn to Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team. Anya, good morning.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So could you start by just reminding us, what is ALEC?
KAMENETZ: So it's a group founded by conservative activists in 1973. And it brings together mostly Republican state lawmakers with corporate lobbyists and some free market conservatives. And all together, they write model bills. And these bills on all sorts of topics get adopted around the country often with very few changes.
GREENE: And this is something we see in legislative bodies around the country often, I mean, groups like this who do a lot of the work on policy and lobby to have the policy put in place. So what exactly is ALEC's education agenda?
KAMENETZ: So ALEC really is the granddaddy of this kind of way of producing legislation. And they wrote the original school voucher bill back in the 1980s, bringing public money to private schools. They've been major champions of charter schools, of home schooling, of similar voucher models like education tax credits, tax credits scholarships. And they also have a sideline in promoting technology in schools. So their chief corporate sponsor in the education realm for many years has been K12 Inc., which is a online for-profit schools chain.
GREENE: So just listening to some of the things you're talking about there, I mean, vouchers and charter schools and tax credits, I mean, this - it sounds a lot like Betsy DeVos has talked about. And it sounds like what President Trump has talked about, I mean, when he said that she would be his choice to lead the Education Department.
KAMENETZ: Yes. And they're - that is no accident, David. The relationship between DeVos and ALEC goes back many, many years. Her organization that she chaired until she became secretary, the American Federation for Children, has supported ALEC financially. DeVos and her husband held stock in K12 Inc., which as I mentioned, was a corporate - is a longtime corporate sponsor of ALEC. And her father-in-law actually received an award from ALEC many years ago. So yes, there's a very, very strong relationship between the two.
GREENE: And is that strong relationship what protesters are angry about?
KAMENETZ: Well, you know, ALEC's drawn a variety of protests from many different types of groups. Teachers unions don't like them because they back policies that tend to weaken those unions such as performance pay over tenure. And then, of course, there are protesters that say that the whole process of having these private companies writing legislation, you know, very closely working in influencing state legislatures, that that's not the most democratic way to make policies or laws.
GREENE: So Betsy DeVos is no stranger to controversy since she has come into this job. What do you expect to hear from her today?
KAMENETZ: You know, she's likely to talk, as she usually does, about the importance of school choice and even more so about state leadership. It's kind of an awkward moment for this because the Trump budget requests that we saw in February had a lot of policies or proposals for school vouchers and school choice on the federal level. And those were just kind of like zeroed out, X'd out by the House Republicans just last week. And so if there's going to be continued growth or expansion of school choice policies, it's probably going to happen on the state level. And ALEC is going to continue to be a big part of that.
GREENE: Speaking to NPR's Anya Kamenetz, who is part of the NPR Ed team. Anya, thanks a lot, we appreciate it.
KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.