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Parents United collection catalogs influence of secretive ALEC

The picture of the powerful organization painted by the leaked documents says as much about the state of democracy as it does about the politics of education.

Over the weekend, the content curators over at Parents United knocked one out of the park. They put together an exhaustive collection of articles, documents and multimedia items that catalog the influence of the secretive, powerful American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Never heard of ALEC? Made up of corporations, right-wing think tanks and conservative lawmakers, the group is a driving force behind this year’s coordinated, all-out effort to push tectonic policy shifts through state legislatures throughout the country. ALEC’s chief victory ground this year was, of course, Wisconsin, where the governor and legislative leaders enjoyed strong ties both to ALEC and its corporate members. 

Never heard of Parents United? It’s a Minnesota nonprofit that does a remarkable job of keeping tabs on all things related to public education. Executive Director Mary Cecconi knows more about school finance than most lawmakers and its news- and resource-packed website is a must-bookmark.

On matters of public education, ALEC’s strategy is to flood the market, according to one of the articles in Parents United’s collection, by The Nation: “ALEC’s 2010 Report Card on American Education called on members and allies to ‘Transform the system, don’t tweak it,’ likening the group’s current legislative strategy to a game of whack-a-mole: introduce so many pieces of model legislation that there is ‘no way the person with the mallet [teachers unions] can get them all.’”

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Some 800 model bills leaked
Traditionally, ALEC has operated in secret, skirting campaign finance and lobbying disclosure laws. Earlier this year, some 800 model bills and other documents were leaked to the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy, which worked with The Nation to paint a comprehensive picture of its reach.

Really, what you ought to do is surf right over to Parents United’s site and start clicking. Even if you’re not an avid consumer of education news, there are links to ALEC’s initiatives on everything from health to criminal justice. In the interest of ensuring you’re convinced, I offer a recap of some of what’s there.

One largish caveat: Many of the items on ALEC’s agenda — teacher evaluation mechanisms, alternative teacher licensure, rewarding innovations — are on the agendas of more politically liberal lawmakers and advocates, too. Depending on the details, there are arguments to be made that not all of their versions are 110 percent student-centered, either.

But the picture of ALEC painted by the leaked documents says as much about the state of democracy as it does about the politics of education.

On that note, you might want to start with a National Public Radio story from last fall, which is a useful FAQ:

As much as $6 million per year
“Here’s how it works: ALEC is a membership organization. State legislators pay $50 a year to belong. Private corporations can join, too. The tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp. and drug-maker Pfizer Inc. are among the members. They pay tens of thousands of dollars a year. Tax records show that corporations collectively pay as much as $6 million a year.

“With that money, the 28 people in the ALEC offices throw three annual conferences. The companies get to sit around a table and write ‘model bills’ with the state legislators, who then take them home to their states.”

And because ALEC maintains that it is a private membership organization and that none of this is lobbying, not even posh trips for lawmakers and their families, all of this takes place outside the realm of public reporting.

According to the ALEC official who described all of this to NPR, “ALEC allows a place for everyone at the table to come and debate and discuss. … You have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters. They’re just trying to learn a policy and understand it.”

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An example: Arizona’s controversial law
And then, by way of example, the report notes that Arizona’s controversial law requiring the incarceration of anyone stopped by police who cannot prove their legal U.S. residency was drafted with the assistance of the Corrections Corporation of America was at the table. Locking up hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants would, of course, represent a windfall for the private prison operator.

Indeed profits are as much behind ALEC’s agenda as ideology, Nation reporter John Nichols told Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, in a half-hour interview also accessible via Parents United:

“All of those pieces of legislation and those resolutions [in the documents] really err toward a goal, and that goal is the advancement of an agenda that seems to be dictated at almost every turn by multinational corporations. … It’s to clear the way for lower taxes, less regulation, a lot of protection against lawsuits, [and] ALEC is very, very active in [the] opening up of areas via privatization for corporations to make more money, particularly in places you might not usually expect, like public education.”

In addition to initiatives such as vouchers and tuition credits, ALEC’s education page lists model bills that would require high school students be instructed in the Founding Fathers’ true intents, a resolution on “non-verified science curriculum funding” — you only get one guess as to where that one’s headed — and bills requiring “intellectual diversity” on higher-ed faculties.

Common Cause has published a lengthy report on ALEC’s finances and political spending, and a shorter piece on its financial activities in Minnesota.

Minnesota education chairs on ALEC task force
All three Minnesota education chairs, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington; Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton; and Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, are members of the ALEC Education Task Force.

For the fly-speckers among you, Parents United has compiled comparisons between ALEC’s model ed bills and Minnesota’s omnibus packages.

I have one more thing to say before I commend you to Parents United, and that’s to convey my frustration that here in the Twin Cities we’re learning about ALEC largely thanks to a nonprofit with five staffers and an enormous watchdog agenda. Common Cause and the Minnesota chapter of the League of Women Voters have taken bites of this, but there’s been little from local media — including from me.

I’ve spent nearly three decades marinating in the First Amendment, and I can only speculate that a more robust journalistic community would never have overlooked a coordinated, multimillion-dollar effort being conducted on the fringes of accepted lobbying activity. Indeed, we have a First Amendment in order to be able to ride herd on elected officials who tiptoe up to the line.

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Maybe it’s time to start thinking of democracy as a use it or lose it proposition.