School Choice & Charters Opinion

ALEC Promotes Vouchers in Douglas County, Colorado

By Anthony Cody — March 20, 2013 5 min read
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Over the past few years we have heard of a conservative political group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This group holds regular meetings which bring together legislators and representatives of corporations. They draft legislation together, and the legislators go back to their states to enact it into law. The corporations also find out where to channel their campaign contributions.

ALEC is beginning to also play a role in local school boards, as we are seeing in places like the Douglas County School District in Colorado. The following report was written by Anne Kleinkopf, a parent who is a board member of the grassroots group Taxpayers for Public Education.

Guest post by Anne Kleinkopf.

Despite an attempt to make it appear as though the Douglas County School District “Choice Scholarship” program was locally generated, it in fact can be traced to the work and influence of powerful pro-voucher, anti- public education organizations, especially the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a powerful nation wide organization dedicated to pushing its legislative and social agenda. Education is one of ALEC’s biggest concerns, and its agenda for education is quite clear: its ‘ideological mission is to defund and redesign public schools” by “privatizing education” and “dismantling the public school system.” And one of its primary means for achieving this goal is its parental choice scholarship program -the blueprint for the voucher program that was passed in Douglas County School District (DCSD).

ALEC members include individual legislators as well as private organizations. Representative Frank McNulty is a member of ALEC. The Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank that supports a pay-for-performance, pro-voucher agenda, based in Jefferson County, Colorado, is also a member of ALEC.

The Council (“ALEC”) operates in a way that is intended to hide its influence on local legislation. ALEC drafts model legislation and presents that legislation to members at ALEC-sponsored conferences; ALEC members then make minor alterations to “disguise” the source of the legislation and present the legislation to their districts back home as if it were their own idea.

One of the ways that ALEC promotes its model legislation, such as its “Parental Choice Scholarship” voucher program, is through an annual education conference called the “School Choice Academy.” This ALEC conference trains legislators and other interested persons in how to plan, package and sell an array of school “choice” options. The conference includessessions on every aspect of adopting, selling and defending a “choice” program.

The connections between ALEC, the ALEC school choice conference, which pushes the ALEC Choice Scholarship program, and the persons who championed, drafted, and voted for the DCSD Choice Scholarship program are numerous.

The DCSD school board that passed the ALEC - based Choice Scholarship program was elected with strong financial support from ALEC - related donors. In 2009, the four school board candidates (John Carson, Dan Greken, Doug Benevento and Meghann Silverthorn) received a total of $40,000 in campaign contributions from Alex Cranberg and Ralph Nagel, of the Alliance for School Choice. The Alliance for School Choice co-sponsors the ALEC School Choice conferences. Neither Cranberg nor Nagel is a resident of Douglas County.

Soon after being elected, John Carson advocated the appointment of a “choice” task force. Significantly, all of the original intended appointees to the task force suggested by Carson are active members of ALEC and supporters of its education agenda: Frank McNulty, who serves on an ALEC task force; Pam Benigno, who is Director of the Independence Institute Education Policy Center, serves on the ALEC education task force, and is active in proposing model education legislation for ALEC; Ben deGrow, who is an analyst for the Independence Institute Education Policy Center and gives frequent presentations to the ALEC education task force; and Frederick Hess, who is Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, gives education seminars with representatives of ALEC, and relies on ALEC education “expert” Richard Vedder in his own reports. Benigno and deGrow ultimately served on the DCSD choice task force, and deGrow was appointed by the DCSD board to serve on the Choice Scholarship Charter School Board; Hess was hired by the DCSD Board tohelp select the superintendent who ultimately approved and implemented the Choice Scholarship program. Neither Benigno nor deGrow nor Hess is a resident of Douglas County, nor do they have children in Douglas County schools.

Finally,Bob Schaffer, then chairmen of the State Board of Education, strongly endorsed the DCSD Choice Scholarship Program, and urged its approval by the Colorado Department of Education. Schaffer is also a member of ALEC and received the ALEC legislator of the year award.

The connections between the DCSD, the Douglas County Board of Education and ALEC continue to strengthen. In 2012 the district hired Cinamon Watson. Ms. Watson, while an employee of ALEC, helped write the ALEC handbook on privatization of public education.

Not surprisingly, the voucher program drafted and approved by this ALEC-connected group conformed to ALEC’s recommendations for a voucher program in Colorado : it uses “scholarships” given to parents for their “choice” of schools; it draws exclusively on state, rather than local, monies; it is structured in a way that claims not to run afoul of the Colorado constitution’s Compelled Support Clause and so-called Blaine amendments; and it is even named the “Choice Scholarship” program, in conformity with the ALEC model legislation.

Cindra Barnard, president of the Taxpayers for Public Educationsent along this note to clarify the current status of the voucher law:

The opinion of the board of Taxpayers For Public Education (TFPE) is that the voucher program, designed by the Douglas County School District (DCSD), lacked accountability, was financially flawed and was inequitable. TFPE filed suit and the voucher program was stopped on August 12, 2011. The trial court ruled that the voucher program violated 6 separate provisions of the Colorado Constitution and the Public School Finance Act. The voucher program, if allowed, takes monies appropriated by the Colorado State Legislature for the public school children of Colorado and gives those monies to private, primarily religious schools for the education of a select group of children in Douglas County, the wealthiest county in Colorado.
The Douglas County School District appealed the decision and on February 28, 2013 a divided panel on the Colorado Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to reverse the trial court decision.
The voucher program has been controversial and unpopular from the start. The public did not ask for the voucher program and the Douglas County School District's own survey shows the majority of Douglas County families are against it. Taxpayers for Public Education plans to appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.

What do you think? Has legislation inspired by ALEC been enacted in your community?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.