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Minnesota’s Scantron becomes latest ed-related firm to quit ALEC

Will ALEC’s influence in education wane, along with its membership? Last month, for-profit education behemoth Kaplan cuts its ties.

Last week, Minnesota-based Scantron became the 15th corporation to cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in recent weeks. Headquartered in Eagan, the $200 million testing and online education provider is best known for creating and scoring the fill-in-the-bubble test answer forms that are the springtime bane of school children pretty much everywhere.

ScantronThe news comes as Common Cause of Minnesota, which has called on local corporate members to leave ALEC, received word that a complaint it filed earlier this month with the state Board of Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure will investigate whether the group is in violation of local lobbying laws.

The board will take up the matter at its June 5 meeting in an executive session that is closed to the public, according to its letter [PDF] to the nonprofit Common Cause, and will likely “lay the matter over” until its July meeting.

The resulting controversy over that and a similar complaint filed by the national Common Cause with the Internal Revenue Service appears to have sparked an exodus.

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Scantron joined ALEC, a membership organization of corporations, think tanks and lawmakers who join one another on junkets to draft business-friendly bills for legislators to introduce at home, in late 2010. The company is only the most recent education-related concern to cut its ties to the group, which has sponsored such controversial measures as Voter ID and the “shoot-first” or Castle Doctrine legislation at issue in the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida.  

Those measures, as well as anti-union campaigns, tort-reform efforts and other ALEC-coordinated attempts to influence state governments throughout the country may have garnered the majority of the headlines that have drawn attention to the group over the last year.

If anything, though, ALEC’s slower-and-steadier attempts to introduce private-sector “reforms” in education have been more successful. Minnesota this year adopted a law that clarifies the state’s definition of, and position toward, digital learning and smoothes the way for its expansion. Before being changed in the legislative process, however, the bill would have required high-school students to complete at least one digital course before they could graduate starting in 2014.

Local lawmakers — there are some 30 ALEC legislative members in Minnesota — have also introduced bills that would create vouchers, rate schools using Florida-style letter grades, limit teachers’ ability to engage in political activities and bar the state from adopting the long-awaited Common Core standards.  

Will ALEC’s influence in education wane, along with its membership? In April, for-profit education behemoth Kaplan, which has tentacles in just about every aspect of digital learning and test preparation, announced that it had dropped out of the group last August.

Its departure followed an announcement by the influential but non-ideological Gates Foundation that it will not renew a grant made to ALEC to underwrite its work on teacher effectiveness and school finance.

Other education players stepping away include the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the Lumina Foundation for Education, which has used assets in excess of $1 billion to support liberal and apolitical causes, including the Center for American Progress and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

According to the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, which has built an exhaustive wiki of ALEC documents, the group also gained some new Education Task Force members who were slated to attend its spring meeting, held earlier this month in Charlotte, NC. The group reports:

“…Wireless Generation (a for-profit online education, software and testing corporation owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, whose executive vice president, Joel Klein, is the former New York City Schools Chancellor), the James Madison Institute (JMI) of Florida, and the Pioneer Institute of Massachusetts, both members of the Koch-funded State Policy Network of right wing state think tanks. JMI has partnered with the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), another ALEC member whose chairman is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. In 2008, FEE and JMI co-hosted a ‘national summit on education reform’ in Florida focused on increased testing, school privatization, and charter schools.”

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Funny thing, business: As soon as the taint of scandal is upon one company, its competition often leaps to action, seeking to evade association. The defection of ALEC’s education-sector members has been mirrored in several other industries.

Last week’s departure by Amazon, the 16th, for instance, is likely to create pressure for Best Buy to reconsider its ALEC membership, just as Coca-Cola’s withdrawal may have inspired Pepsi’s, Wendy’s may have sparked McDonald’s, and so forth.

According to Common Cause of Minnesota, in addition to Best Buy, where executives are likely preoccupied putting out other fires, the state’s remaining corporate ALEC members are UnitedHealth and Xcel.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the outcome of a bill on digital learning.