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What are MN attendees of ALEC confab likely bringing back? Think tenure reform

Plush surroundings awaited attendees of ALEC's K-12 Education Reform Academy in Amelia Island, Fla.

Last week, the Minnesota House of Representatives did not meet on Thursday or Friday. The state Senate held a handful of hearings Thursday, but was in recess Friday.

Which was terribly convenient for those members of the Republican caucuses who are also members of the secretive, controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which recently issued members this invitation to a confab where it was to roll out its 2012 legislative agenda:

“You are cordially invited to attend ALEC’s K-12 Education Reform Academy, February 3-4, 2012 at the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla. For invited legislators like you, ALEC will cover your room for up to two nights at the host hotel. ALEC will also reimburse up to $500 for travel expenses, which includes coach airfare, cab fare, and a reimbursement of 55.5 cents per mile driven.

“This event will address the top reforms in K-12 education that ALEC believes each state must have to ensure the successful and productive education for all American students. We will discuss what you as a state legislator can do to address a variety of issues surrounding K-12 education reform, including charter schools accessibility, accountability and transparency, standards for teacher excellence, open enrollment, vouchers, tax credits, and blended learning options.”

Sadly, ALEC did not offer Your Humble Blogger an all-expense-paid junket to the glitzy resort, so I can only speculate about the policy chatter that accompanied the cracked crab claws and appletinis. But it’s educated speculation, aided by the release last week of the group’s most recent education report card on the states.

First a little boilerplate:

Chief victory in 2011 was Wisconsin

Never heard of ALEC? Made up of corporations, right-wing think tanks and conservative lawmakers, the group was a driving force behind last year’s coordinated, all-out effort to push tectonic policy shifts through state legislatures throughout the country. ALEC’s chief victory ground in 2011 was Wisconsin, where the governor and legislative leaders enjoyed strong ties both to ALEC and its corporate members.

On matters of public education, ALEC’s strategy is to flood the market, according to an award-winning investigation published 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.'”

How is this legal? A 2010 National Public Radio story expanded thusly:

“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.”

Outside the realm of public reporting

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.

Nonetheless, there are a few resources: The grassroots education advocacy group Parents United, whose website you really should have bookmarked, has curated the most authoritative local roundup of ALEC readings, including the aforementioned Nation investigation.

Former MinnPoster Jeff Severn Gunzel and I dipped baby toes into the group’s local activities last year, following on the heels of Bluestem Prairie’s Sally Jo Sorenson and the late lamented Minnesota Independent.

MN Indy and Severns Gunzel separately attempted to catalogue ALEC’s local membership; the most authoritative list I’ve found more recently is maintained by Sourcewatch. Suffice to say, the Florida junket invite landed in at least 26 inboxes hereabouts, including those of GOP leaders in both chambers.

If you want to know whether your elected official was one, you will have better luck calling and asking as a constituent than reporters have had. If they tell you, tell us.

So what’s in the corporate-funded council’s 2012 playbook? For Minnesota, the safe money is on teacher hiring and firing laws. Yep, tenure reform, which won’t surprise you at all if you clicked through a few of the links above and discovered ALEC’s right-to-work legislation campaign, now playing out at a statehouse near you.

Overall B+ score for Minnesota

Minnesota scored a B+ on the group’s newest report card [PDF], up from a B in 2009 and in 2010. We got an A in charter school policy (quite possibly because of the groundbreaking non-ALEC charter oversight reform passed a couple of years ago) and a C in homeschooling “regulation burden.”

We got a D- overall for teacher policies, including an F in the category of “exiting” ineffective teachers. Interestingly, we got a D- for “expanding the teacher pool” despite Minnesota’s adoption last year of alternative certification routes for new teachers, a reform opposed by unions yet sought by education advocates on both sides of the aisle.

It’s important to note that although the report card looks at student achievement, ALEC’s A students are not reliably those posting scores that suggest they are narrowing the achievement gap. The document reports some select indicators, but does not correlate the policies it grades to the performance of the students said policies are supposed to benefit.

As explained by the distinctly non-neutral Truth-Out:

“Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Kansas, New Hampshire and New York comprise the top 10 states in NAEP performance. Among them, only Colorado is among the 13 states ALEC gives a B or better on its report card. Vermont, even though it scored number two on the NAEP, is tied for dead last for policy with a D+. Missouri, ALEC’s star pupil with an A-, scored 47th on NAEP.

” ‘It’s a compendium of the progress of the ALEC agenda and it has nothing to do with educating students,’ ” says Julie Underwood, dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.” And the author of the Nation report.

All of which makes it hard to argue that the ALEC critics who say the group’s real aim is the privatization of education everywhere are wearing tin foil hats.

Seniority is only factor in layoffs currently

We’ll revisit tenure reform in this space soon and likely often as this session unfurls. Right now, know that Minnesota law does not allow any factor other than seniority to come into play when layoffs occur.

Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are in favor of replacing “last-in, first-out,” or LIFO, as you will hear over and over in coming weeks. But as is always the case with matters involving teacher (and principal) evaluation, there are good ways of moving forward and there are ham-handed ways.

And there are places where seniority and student performance co-exist happily in deciding which teachers should be retained. And — and this is huge — there are ways to craft these policies so that the best teacher candidates are recruited and — huger still — retained.

The stakes, then, are incredibly high, making the fine print of whatever model legislation Minnesota’s junketeers bring back from Amelia Island very important.

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