Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified Julie Underwood. She is the former dean of the University of Wisconsin’s school of education and is currently a professor there.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—an ardent school choice supporter who has turned out to be among the Trump administration’s most polarizing cabinet picks—will deliver a speech this week to members of a controversial organization that some argue is her best shot at advancing an aggressive school choice agenda.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is known for drafting conservative model legislation in states on a range of issues including gun rights, tax reform, and education. DeVos will appear at ALEC’s annual meeting Thursday in Denver.
Ask a conservative, and they’re likely to describe ALEC as a membership organization that brings together private industry leaders and Republican state lawmakers to draft soundly conservative policies. Ask a liberal, and they’re likely to say ALEC is a shadowy group of corporate types pushing a destructive, far-right agenda.
But regardless of political persuasion, there are two points most would agree on: ALEC is successful at influencing policy in statehouses, and its focus on private school choice dovetails perfectly with DeVos’ education priorities.
“There are lots of groups that do model legislation, but nobody as successfully as ALEC,” said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University and a member of the left-leaning National Education Policy Center, which has also started writing its own model legislation.
ALEC has crafted model legislation on education issues such as curbing tuition costs at state universities and performance-based pay for teachers, but a significant share of the bills it writes focus on school choice.
It has drafted bills calling for more regulatory freedom for home-schooling families and charter schools, and bills to create full-time online schools and open enrollment, which would allow students to attend any public school they want, even if it’s in another district.
Its model legislation for private school choice—programs such as vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts—is a prominent part of its legislative portfolio for education. All three types of those choice programs provide public money to families or organizations to pay for private school tuition or other education expenses.
Education savings accounts, in particular, demonstrate how ALEC helps plant seeds for new policy ideas, said Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank based in Washington.
“You definitely see the [ESA] model legislation show up in the states, and even though it might get tweaked along the way, it’s often a starting point,” Petrilli said. “It’s an important part of the sausage making. In fact, this meeting is in the summer, so I’d say this is where the sausage making starts.”
Originally developed in Arizona by the Goldwater Institute, proposals for education savings accounts—which allow families to spend state education dollars on approved expenses such as private school tuition, tutoring, or therapy—are popping up in a growing number of states. While bills to establish ESAs were introduced in 18 states this spring, only one passed—in North Carolina.
The Goldwater Institute, whose current education director co-chaired ALEC’s education task force committee for several years, helped draft ALEC’s model education savings account bill.
Other prominent school choice advocacy organizations that belong to ALEC, either as members or conference sponsors, are EdChoice and the American Federation for Children, a group Betsy DeVos helped found and used to chair.
As part of a billionaire family whose background in education prior to joining the Trump administration was as a philanthropic booster of school choice, DeVos has been a controversial figure in Trump’s cabinet ever since she was plucked out of relative obscurity to lead the Education Department.
Predictably, DeVos’ decision to address ALEC members this week is drawing some criticism. But many of her appearances after being nominated as Education Secretary have.
“My concern about ALEC is that [it] takes the private corporation and gives them such incredible power,” said Julie Underwood, a professor at the education school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the school’s former dean.
Underwood, who is a staunch critic of ALEC, pointed to the current co-chair of the group’s education committee—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.
Underwood said that by addressing ALEC’s members at its annual meeting, DeVos is legitimizing not only the policies that ALEC promotes, but the way it promotes them.
“She can use her bully pulpit to further their privatization agenda,” Underwood said.
The head of one of the national teachers’ union had even harsher words.
“Betsy DeVos and ALEC are joined at the hip,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “DeVos executed ALEC’s agenda when she was in Michigan and is now doing the same at the Education Department, working to defund and privatize public education.”
Local Colorado media outlets have reported that protests over DeVos’ appearance and education agenda are planned.
But others argue that reaction is overblown. The Education Department has only a limited means to expand school choice programs, so DeVos will have to rely on allies at the state level to see her favored education policy grow. And ALEC is an important forum to forge and strengthen those partnerships.
“I totally understand that people will suggest that there is a problem, but I think that’s goofy,” said Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, and an opinion blogger on edweek.org. “It was perfectly fine for [former U.S. secretaries of education Arne Duncan and John King Jr.] to speak to like-minded groups that were moving their same priorities, even on controversial policies like ... the way they thought about transgender guidance.”