On July 20, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will address conservative legislators and corporate lobbyists at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Media outlets have spotlighted DeVos’ long-time support of right-wing corporate education reform proposals advocated by ALEC, including, among other things, so-called “school-choice” programs that weaken traditional public schools.
ALEC is a corporate-funded “membership organization.” It connects right-wing state legislators across the country with model legislation that represents “the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism” and corresponds with corporate interests on a given policy issue. Almost one-quarter of all state legislators in the U.S. are part of the ALEC network, giving it unmatched influence in turning its model legislation into law. ALEC has promoted legislation on private school choice programs including voucher programs and scholarship tax credits. They have been a key part of the successful push to massively expand private school voucher policies across an increasing number of states over the past 10 years. Additionally, in line with its right-wing agenda, ALEC is also behind so-called “right to work” legislation that severely weakens unions -- including teachers unions.
In reporting on her upcoming address, Education Week described DeVos and ALEC as “natural allies” because DeVos promotes education policies that are beneficial to the large corporations that make up ALEC’s membership. Education Week noted that “the current co-chair of the group’s education committee” is Tom Bolvin, “who works for K12 Inc., the for-profit education company that has been under fire for poor performance of many of the online charter schools it operates.” DeVos has also delayed the implementation of two measures designed to deter for-profit colleges from defrauding and impoverishing students. This delay has prevented victimized students from getting debt relief, but may help buoy the financial stability of ALEC-affiliated for-profit college corporations. DeVos and ALEC are both in favor of expanding online for-profit charter schools, which have a dismal record of academic performance but are extremely profitable.
NPR also highlighted the extent to which DeVos’ and ALEC’s agendas overlap, quoting ALEC’s education policy head, Inez Feltscher, saying 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.” University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor Julie Underwood summarized ALEC’s education policy agenda to NPR as “vouchers, vouchers, vouchers.”
DeVos indeed views the expansion of vouchers as a key policy objective, and she and ALEC even point to the same states as role models. DeVos has praised Arizona's, Indiana’s, and Florida’s versions of voucher programs. Arizona just passed legislation enacting an unprecedented voucher program with universal eligibility and functionally no regulation. Florida has the highest total number of students enrolled in voucher programs of any state in the country (not counting individual tax credit programs), and Indiana has the largest traditional voucher program. Arizona, Florida, and Indiana are also the only three states to receive the highest grade that ALEC awarded on its annual state education policy report card. ALEC was a co-signatory on a recent letter praising Devos’ “vision for empowering parents to choose the best educational setting for their children.” The letter emphasized the “innovative programs that are in place in states like Arizona, Florida, and Ohio.”
DeVos is not the first member of the Trump administration to address ALEC’s annual meeting. Vice President Mike Pence addressed ALEC’s conference last summer, when he was governor of Indiana, in Indianapolis. As governor, Pence oversaw the rapid expansion of vouchers in Indiana. In his speech at the conference, he named this expansion of Indiana’s voucher program as one of his key accomplishments.