Educational Profiteering as Educational Reform

Educational Profiteering as Educational Reform

It’s not too difficult to connect the many dots left across the educational landscape by those who seek to profit from what Bruce Baker calls the ‘reformy movement.’  (Read Dr. Baker’s blog at  I’ll be writing more about the profiteers in the future, and if you are paying attention to moderate and progressive criticism of the current educational reform movement, you won’t have any trouble seeing the profiteers tucked inside lots of otherwise benign looking covers.  One of the least visible but most powerful and, I think, most damaging corporate sponsors of the for-profit grab at public education is the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC.

ALEC’s Threats to Public Education

ALEC has its fingerprints and keyboards all over conservative legislation in almost every state.  Many people have written about their influence and funding sources, particularly progressive analysts who are deeply concerned about their ability to promote legislative agendas while hiding their funding sources under non-profit status.  The Center for Media and Democracy has a web page called ALEC Exposed on which they provide links to the various ways ALEC is funded, and how they use their influence to promote their very conservative agenda, part of which is outright attacks on public education and support for vouchers and charter schools.  The Center for Media and Democracy is progressive, so expect a hard series of negative links on ALEC.

You can Google ALEC and find lots of information—in Wikipedia, for example, you can read of numerous efforts to highlight ALEC’s ability to secretly exert corporate influence across a range of contemporary business, social, environment and educational issues.  You will discover reports of a lawsuit to strip ALEC of it’s tax exempt status, newspaper articles about ALEX, a Nation magazine article in 2011–” ALEC Exposed” at  which became the Center for Media and Democracy’s web expose, and more.

ALEC and its Education Task Force

One of its nine task forces is education.  The kinds of state legislation ALEX pushes is written by corporations and is intended to further the influence of the education related business that comprise members and funders.  The depth of ALEC’s involvement in education wasn’t clear to me until I read an Education Week online reprint of an opinion piece from Phi Delta Kappa International, written by Julie Underwood, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Julie Mead, chair of the Educational Leadership and Polity Analysis department at the same university.  Underwood is also a former general counsel of the National School Boards Association.  You can see the abstract and get a copy of the full article for a small charge here if you can’t find the March 2012 copy of Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

In “A Smart ALEC Threatens Public Education,” the authors report on the manner in which bills in various states were written by corporations and presented to state legislatures by elected state politicians who are not open about the bills’ authors.  They highlight ALEC’s own Report card on American education: “Ranking state K-12 performance, progress, and reform,” a 2010 ALEC publication, as they describe the group’s agenda, which includes decreasing local control of schools, increasing access to education by private entities and corporations, introducing market factors through several anti-union legislative proposals, and legislation to encourage school boards “to outsource their auxiliary services.”

ALEC’s privatization efforts are somewhat better known: They promote vouchers, charters, and tax incentives through legislative language they provide to their state politician members.  They also promote more testing and reporting, reduced influence of school boards on charters, virtual schools, and broad support for privatization.  With K-12 Inc. a (former) major partner and writer of legislation promoted in Tennessee, for example, the authors show how corporate ALEC partners work to promote themselves through ALEC’s secret connections.  They note that the significant expansion of vouchers, tax deductions for private school tuition, and charters in states like Arizona, Indiana, Georgia, Louisiana, and Oklahoma are taken directly from ALEC’s legislative playbook.

Oppostion to ALEC is growing

Some of the corporate partners/members of ALEC with educational for-profit interests have included Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which promotes vouchers and charters; Kaplan, K-12 Inc., Scantron, The News Corp, which is Rupert Murdock’s entree into the educational business through multiple tentacles, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and Reed Elsevier, a multinational publisher.  There is a growing awareness of ALEC’s influence in the states, and as the public learns more about the corporations who are funding ALEC, activists have been pushing for corporate disengagement.  As of November 2013, 56 corporations or nonprofits have left ALEC, including Kaplan, Scantron, Reed Elsevier, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, named above.   The Gates Foundation once funded ALEC with a grant but is no longer providing financial support. A list of former supporters who have responded to pressure at shows that citizen activism has had some effect on corporations who understand that ALEC membership may not be in their public interest.

The more that we who support public education can expose the profit motives of many in the reform movement, the better.  I am a capitalist, and I made a good living in education, but I have a sense of honestly and fairness that suggests public education is a uniquely American opportunity that should not be perverted by the profit motive.  Schools should remain a public trust, and when profiteers warp reality, distort data, and outright lie about our schools for their own gain, my social studies background and focus on data-driven decision making makes my hackles rise.  ALEC triggers an immediate revulsion. To understand the motives of so-called reformers, Follow the money!

Growing Poverty in American Schools

Growing Poverty in Schools

I’ve been writing about poverty a lot lately, with two recent post on poverty and educational attainment here, and here.  Continuing along that theme, two recent reports have come out of the Southern Education Foundation relating to poverty in U.S. Schools.  The first is A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation, dated October 2013.  Using 2011 school year data, 17 states are identified in which the majority of public school students are low income–eligible for free or reduced meals.  Of the 17, 13 are southern states that have had such numbers since 2005.  By region, the South has 53% low income in public schools, the West 50%, the Midwest 44% and the Northeast 40%.

City Poverty in Schools is Widespread

Looking at the low income rates in city public schools, it tops 50% in 38 states.  Cities are defined as having populations of 100,000 or more, which may help to explain why North Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Vermont have the lowest numbers of low income students in this category, ranging from 30-38%.  They may have the fewest cities large enough to make this study’s cut.  Regionally, the Northeast has the highest percent of low income students in it’s cities, at 71%, followed by the Midwest, the South and the West, with 54% of its city school populations in the low income range.  Given the concentration of poverty in big Eastern cities, this is not surprising.

District Poverty Highest in the South

Looked at yet another way, 76% of school districts in the South have low income majorities, with Western districts showing 54%, Midwestern districts 38%, and Northeast districts 26% low income students.  Again, students of geography will see in these numbers the patterns of population and SES distributions prevalent in each region.

Growth in Poverty in 10 Years

Low income student population growth over 10 years is a disturbing reflection of the growing economic disparities within America today.  Between 2001 and 2011, the Midwest, hardest hit by economic and manufacturing contractions, showed a 40% increase in low income students.  The South showed a 33% increase, the West a 31% increase, and the Northeast a 21% increase, so no regions were unscathed by the economic dislocation of families.

Achievement Gaps Remain Constant While the Percent of Low Income Students Grows

Between 2003 and 2011, NAEP scores have risen for all subgroups of students, but there is little change in the gap between scores of high and low income students–it remains at about 27 points in every region of the nation.  When you recognize that the numbers and percents of low income students have grown substantially while the gap in scores has remained constant and all scores have improved, that’s actually a rather substantial compliment to the work of schools during a time when per pupil expenditures have not kept pace with the increased number of low income students (except in the Northeast.)  These should be seen as relatively positive data elements for schools, but that positive reality is hidden behind the lingering achievement gap.  This gap is often described as a gap between white students and students of color, but it is increasingly being correctly identified as a socio-economic gap and a function of economic disparities, not racial ones.  This is easier to see in states with lower numbers of minority students but high rural, and usually white, poverty.  Rural poverty and low student performance go hand in hand, regardless of ethnicity.

TIMSS Math Scores and State Low Income Levels

The second important item from the Southern Education Foundation is a new brief that looks at TIMSS math scores by state using free and reduced lunch rates as a variable.  International Test Scores: States with a “New Majority” of Low Income Students finds that “states with math scores below or not significantly different from the international average in 2011 [on TIMSS Math scores] were largely the state with a majority of low income students.  The higher the percentage of low income students, the lower the states generally ranked in TIMSS Math or Science Grade 8 scores.  The accompanying charts clearly illustrate the patterns.

Poverty and Achievement Are Inversely Linked

These two reports once again point toward disparities of educational opportunities and economic inequality that so strongly influence student attainment.  We can talk forever about teacher quality and accountability, but until the nation takes responsibility for the patterns of economic inequality among the states, and the rural and urban poverty that is increasing annually, real progress will elude us.  As the first report above concludes: “When the public school achievement of low income students constitutes the educational success of failure of a majority of all public school students, our entire nation’s future educational capacity is at stake….. Without improving the educational support that the nation provides its low income students–students with the largest needs and usually with the least support–the trends of the last decade will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but a nation in decline.”