Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

JUNE 1, 2012 8:30AM

ALEC: Dismantling Public Education “Drip by Drip”

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Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan fights the good fight for public education.


Mark Pocan is an unlikely firebrand.  The state representative from Wisconsin’s 78th Assembly District is slightly on the nebbish side. He speaks with rhetorical flourishes that would not be out of place were he addressing a high school prep rally as the only junior administration representative.  He represents Madison—Madtown—and he sort of talks like it.

            He is also a longtime member of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the rightwing faux 501(c)3 organization that wants to reintroduce “Jeffersonian” principles—whatever they mean by that—into every nook and cranny of the U.S. through cookie cutter state laws written by the special interest groups they represent.  

            Most people know this, but what fewer people know is that a core mission of ALEC, going all the way back to 1985, is to dismantle public education.  Mark Pocan knows this, as only a member of ALEC can.  And he says it too, to anyone in the Wisconsin state assembly who will listen.  Some do.  A few do.  But the public, not so much. Pocan, you see, is perhaps the only person who attends ALEC conferences to do his opposition research.

            Pocan attended a 2011 ALEC conference in which a Special Needs Scholarship Act was hammered out, based on text supplied by the American Federation for Children, an extreme conservative special interest group.  The law provides for hefty “scholarships” for parents of special needs children to be educated at a private school of the parents’ choice.  In the Wisconsin the scholarship amount is $13,500 per child per year. The law has already passed in Georgia.

            Pocan said, in a March 6 speech on the floor of the Assembly, “There was a proposal to provide special-needs scholarships.  Lo and behold, all of a sudden I come back to Wisconsin, and what gets introduced?  A bill to do just that.”

            Pocan describes ALEC’s strategy as one designed to “dismantle public education” (his term) “drip by drip.”  With a 14-point anti-public education program, Pocan advises, it is difficult for legislators or media to keep up with the incremental dissemination of model bill after model bill designed to defund and dismantle public education. Some of the proposals, many in fact, seem innocuous to unschooled ears.  “School choice” and “parental choice” are two perennial ALEC favorite slogans. But ALEC has appropriated the language about school performance gaps just as easily as it has dropped the word “vouchers” for “scholarships.”

            The idea, of course, is to divert the funding stream to public schools drip by drip until American education is the American landscape around the Colorado River and public schools are the Gulf of California.

            Why?  The motivations are worse even than the norm for ALEC.  Researchers Judy Underwood and Julie F. Mead write:

The corporate members on ALEC’s education task force include representatives from the Friedman Foundation, Goldwater Institute, Evergreen Education Group, Washington Policy Center, and corporations providing education services such as Sylvan Learning and K-12, Inc. All stand to benefit from public funding sent in their direction.

            Apparently Mark Pocan’s rhetoric has gotten under the skin of ALEC. Up until recently, ALEC used to provide its member legislators with online access to its storehouse of model bills.  Pocan went online recently and found was access was denied.  He thus described ALEC’s operations as having retreated to “the shadows of the shadows.”  That makes sense, because state legislators were never the constituents of ALEC’s products, they were the consumers.  The true stakeholders are the companies, of which those named above are just a tiny sample, who make the tax-deductible contributions to the lobbying organization masquerading as a charity.

            Underwood and Mead offer a list of five states, including Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, and Oklahoma that have enacted ALEC-style initiatives at the link provided above.  But more—much more—is on the way.  It would be bad enough if the intended beneficiaries of ALEC’s dream of taxpayer-funded private religious schools were the end of it.  The result then would be some kind of Americanized madrassa system where people could teach creationism, people hanging out with dinosaurs, and man’s dominion over climate in the peace of their own conclaves.  But ALEC’s true vision is even worse—corporate control of the classroom.  The equivalent of competition between MacDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s; that, after all, is the final-stage outcome of the realization of ALEC’s vision for American education.  The goal is to make education safe for duopoly capitalism with taxpayers footing the bill.  Multi-million dollar educational conglomerate CEO salaries (already a reality) combined with true-believing, union-free faculties, that is a like future if ALEC gets its way.

            But hey, the choice will be ours, right?

            My view?  Mark Pocan is a low-profile, slightly nebbish American hero who has done his homework from the inside out.  It would behoove us—we who are as oblivious to this stuff  as teens at a pep rally—to pay attention to what he has to say, so we may learn to regard ALEC as the fearsome opposing team it is.

* * *

Postscript:  Care to offer Pocan a word of encouragement?  Here is his contact information: WI State Representative Mark Pocan. Room 125 West, State Capitol. PO Box 8953. Madison, WI 53708. 608/266-8570.

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$13,500 for a special needs scholarship isn't a bad deal for either the parents or the taxpayers. Current per pupil spending in Boston cities goes as high as $20,000. Private providers can offer specialized assistance to special needs students that public schools--generally speaking--can't or won't. The alternative is endless litigation of parents against public schools, which drains resources better spent in the classroom.

A number of states have tried giving parents of special needs children direct funding to buy the services they need from any willing provider, and acceptance has been very high. Parents of special needs children are happy, parents of non-special needs kids are happy because school district resources aren't spent on lawyers--a win/win.

As for vouchers, I've often thought the way to sell them to reluctant liberals is to point out that they're so . . . European. School choice is the norm in most European countries. We have vouchers for the poor for food (food stamps), vouchers for medical care (Medicaid/Medicare), vouchers for housing (Section 8), even vouchers for day care and higher ed (Pell Grants). I've never heard a cogent explanation as to why K-12 education should be different, especially in areas like special education where district schools are failing the kids.

In a previous life I was special assistant to the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts under Republican Governor Bill Weld where we implemented the state's new 1994 Education Reform Act which called for higher standards and accountability in public schools while also providing opportunities for limited privitization via charter schools regulated by the state board of education. This kind of mix between public and private seemed a good balance to me at the time, and still does.

But I agree with you about the seriousness of attacks against public education itself coming from the radical right. And I think you've put your finger on the real reason for the attacks against public sector unions, teachers in particular, in state's like Wisconsin.

It's not for reasons of cost, which was exposed when Governor Walker refused to take "yes" for an answer and pushed through his union-busting bill despite concessions the public sector unions were willing to make. The real reason conservatives want to dismantle public sector unions is because they want to dismantle the government programs and functions they support. Kill teacher's unions and you destroy public education.

A strong teacher union giving political support to officials who properly fund public education is a threat to the ambitions of those on the right who want to privatize public education either for reasons of private profit or personal ideology -- right wing religious fundamentalists in particular.

We've seen the problems of factionalism, polariziation and political dyfunction that stems from the balkenization of our media in which the electorate lives in different empirical universes. Imagine what it will be like once whole new generations of students emerge who've been who've been taught, for example, revisionist, ideologically-driven and fictionalized history about how the Founding Fathers were god-fearing Christians who want America to be a Christian Republic. How does a melting pot democracy survive the sectarianism that's a natural product of that?

And just as the right wing does with all its projects, the destruction of public education will all be accomplished by the right projecting its own ambitions and inner demons onto its opponents via relentless right wing attacks about the "indoctrination" our children now receive from "government schools" run by union bosses and the "godless, secular progressive" teachers who pay their dues.
Con, I would say that the existence of food stamps, government-funded health care, and vouchers for public housing won't do away with food, housing or health care as "public" goods. In fact, those programs were designed to provide those goods and services to those who can't afford them. School vouchers will drain money from the public school system and kill it off. That's what they were designed for. And what the public school system will be replaced with is anyone's guess. The "alternatives" I've seen, charter schools and private religious schools, are every bit as rife with problems as any public school/district.

You honestly can't see the difference?
Your point that $20,000 is spent on special needs students proves nothing about the strategy itself. $13,500 is far above the average ADA expenditure on students, so it leaves a smaller average available to all the students who remain in the public system. And perhaps you could identify the private schools in your area that provide superior services to special needs students. I think some special education teachers working in public schools might be interested to know.

As for Europe, come on. They have no tradition of private schools chartered in the manner of our private, non-profit schools. And public dollars for bona fide religious schools? No. And perhaps you can explain how in England the public schools are private and the private schools are public.

Public education works for the vast majority of students who attend. Public schools in deeply distressed areas? Not so much. Of California's 2500 high schools, just 100 produce half the dropouts. Close 'em? Why not just close down the neighborhoods in which they exist? That should take care of the problem, right?

And you completely ignore that ALEC's constituents for their educational "reform" are corporate providers. Sell our schools to for-profit providers who must please their Wall Street shareholders? Not for me. If you want your kids to attend one, I would treat is as any other private school. Pay the freight yourself.

I have no beef with charter schools as an option, but to dismantle the mainline public education providers would do a disservice to the nation's teachers and systems who pull it off day in a day out. Don't believe it can be done?

Come visit me in Minneapolis and I will take you on a tour of Southwest High School (located in the city proper). I'd like to show you what they are doing with their International Baccalaureate program. And I'd like to show you what they are doing for special needs kids. And then perhaps you could show me how the private schools you favor would achieve that at an ADA rate comparable to what is granted to Southwest High.
The research of Caroline Hoxby and others (most recently Benjamin Scafidi) shows that public non-charter schools respond to competition by improving--they aren't destroyed. They get better.

I know there are public non-charter schools that do great things--my kids spent their entire education in them, and I went to public jr. high and high school. The point is there needs to be competition, especially for the poor. (By the way, the most telling statistic in this area is that census figures show public school teachers in major metropolitan areas are 20% more likely to send their own kids to private school than other parents--what do they know that we don't, or why do they say one thing and do another?

I ran a privately-funded voucher program and we were able to get low-income kids into better private and parochial schools at a lower cost than the Boston inner city alternatives; higher graduation rates, lower crime (saving a kid's life is kind of important to making his education pay off.) The delta was dramatic: Boston and Cambridge were taking in more than $15,000 a year, and the one public high school in Cambridge lost its accreditation during the period it was that bad. There are low-cost inner-city providers that did the job, most of the church-affiliated--Seventh Day Adventists particularly in the DC area.

As for what is meant by the Jeffersonian comment quoted in the post, you will find in the Library of America edition of Jefferson's papers that while he favored separation of church and state, he favored public support of religious schools. He proposed that all religions be allowed to establish facilities for instruction on the campus of the University of Virginia, and the system of religious schools in place in Virginia since pre-colonial days was left in place after the Anglican religion was dis-established.
Con, It doesn't surprise me that vouchers can work for the kids who get them, especially in a limited context, as exceptions to the rule. If you want to expand the model to universal education, then the whole model breaks down. And ADA doesn't cover capital costs. So while your local LDS school that offers a super, God-centered education may be capable of growing its enrollment under the voucher, er, scholarship, system, as soon as it needs to build new schools--out in the suburbs of course--guess whose school taxes will go up?

As for kids not being safe in the inner city. How is that the fault of schools? Your point of view points to schools going the way of grocery stores in inner cities. That's a free market solution.

As for Jefferson, good exposition, I get it. I just don't agree with it. His mitigated view of separation of church and state was no better than his mitigated view of equal rights for all.
We should allow Jefferson to speak:

Jefferson's consistency in applying the principle of the separation of church and state was also evident in the field of education. It has been contended that he advocated the use of public funds in Virginia for a school of theology for the training of clergymen; that he approved of elaborate arrangements for the students of private theological schools to share the facilities of the University of Virginia; that he recommended that a room in the university be used for worship; and that he did not protest against the use by Virginia of tax monies on behalf of religious education. It has been contended, in other words, that his principle of total separation was not put into practice. (15)

In matters of education, however, Jefferson was a complete secularist, never deviating in any significant degree. In 1778 he submitted, in a Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, a comprehensive plan for public education at the primary and secondary levels.(16) Religious instruction was completely absent from the proposed curriculum at a time when it was a prominent feature in schools everywhere else. The omission was deliberate; Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia: "Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history."(17) Religion was also conspicuous by its absence from Jefferson's plan of 1817; his Bill for Establishing a System of Public Education enumerated only secular subjects. In an effort to eliminate possible religious influence in the public schools, Jefferson specified that ministers should not serve as "visitors" or supervisors, and provided that "no religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practised" in violation of the tenets of any sect or denomination
Scary stuff, Steve. And you would think that a legislator from "Madtown" would be just a big more egalatarian than that--at least the "Madtown" that I knew 20-some years ago when I lived in Wisconsin.
I should add that, generally, when the Right says "Jeffersonian Principles" it's more an expression of Anti-Federalism v. Federalism. Jefferson's state focus v. Hamilton's federal. This is true even though almost all "conservatives" have no idea of what it means.

In that, conservatism was about preserving state's "rights" as an element of America's liberal institutions and beliefs.

What is (was) the philosophy of conservatism?
Answer: Liberalism.

(Conservatism isn't a philosophy; it's a mindset or attitude.)

While that "Jeffersonian" belief existed at the time of the beginning of Movement Conservatism, it's been long lost in the muddled mess caused by having to demagogue various groups to gain political power. As such, now the religious Right is allowed to distort history and advocate for a return to "Conservatism" in it's most long-held, traditional meaning-- supporting the rule of nobility and church. In that, implying Jefferson wanted to reverse the American Revolution pretty much deletes any valid claim to "Jeffersonian Principles."

And while we're deleting the conservative's specious claim to Jefferson's mind, the idea he'd support a group like ALEC is as obscene as ALEC saying it follows Jefferson's principles. There is absolutely no way Jefferson would approve of a shadow corporate government dictating laws to the states. He was as rightfully and wisely in fear of corporations destroying what he and the other founders had built, a sentiment widely shared among all Americans at that time.

Movement Conservatism was founded as a reaction against ideologies in general, and even more so against the type of aberrant ideology cap-C Conservatism has become.

Because the above is abundantly true, Conservatives should quit trying to find ala carte support from Jefferson while they reject, by action, the truth and spirit of the whole meal.
If the quality of education was a fine as your post and ensuing commentary perhaps there would be less worries all around. (note- the Minneapolis teens under my roof bus out to Wayzata for their high school experience.)
@Paul J O'Rourke, Thank you! I am so sick of people lying about Jefferson's stand on religion in public school. The lies have been repeated so many times unchallenged that many good people have no idea how adamantly opposed he really was.
I have a simple plea -- can we leave the Founders out of this discussion when it comes to the problems faced by our current educational system? Brilliant as Jefferson was, he can't possibly have anticipated what today's teachers have to deal with.

That said, Jefferson, and others of his time, certainly had it far more right than the teach-to-test readin' writin' and rithmetic right-wingers pushing the destruction of our public school system. Jefferson understood the value of "frivolous" subjects like music and philosopy. When he spoke of an informed populace, he meant one that had learned criical-thinking skills. How else were they supposed to be wise enough to choose between candidates for public office?

And as we witness today, ignorance begets only ignorance.
Nice post, Steve. It's important for people to recognize that (from what I've read) Wisconsin isn't creating a new pot of money for special needs scholarships; they're just dividing up the pie differently. Is that going to improve things overall? Unfortunately, ALEC seems to push issues for ideological rather than pragmatic reasons.
One main problem for public education, as for any public program, is that once its funding gets too diminished, quality suffers and then come the denunciations that public education is wasteful, inefficient and ineffective. Steve, you and Ted have pointed out the likely consequences of the increasing corporatization of the education system.