School district's voucher program parallels national effort

Similarities, local links raise questions of broader agenda

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Douglas County Schools’ effort to overhaul the district is in sync with proposals put forth by a conservative, national political organization that many believe advances an education-privatization agenda.

The American Legislative Exchange Council brings legislators and corporate representatives together to vote as equals on model legislation. Those proposed laws may then be introduced at the state level by ALEC-member legislators. ALEC supports limited government, free markets and federalism, and its model legislation reflects those beliefs.

ALEC’s “parental choice scholarship program” model legislation — which provides the option to use public money for children to attend the public or private school that their parents choose — is similar to DCSD’s controversial voucher program.

Additionally, the chair of the Douglas County School District’s Choice Scholarship School, the Independence Institute’s Ben DeGrow, served on ALEC’s Education Task Force as well as DCSD’s Choice Task Force in 2010. District Community Relations Officer Cinamon Watson also worked for ALEC on education issues in the mid-1990s, shortly after she graduated from college.

Private school supporters and national school choice advocates made generous contributions to six of the seven Douglas County School Board members during their 2009 and 2011 campaigns. Carrie Mendoza was appointed to replace Dan Gerken, who also received generous campaign contributions from private school and choice supporters.

Some Douglas County residents find those connections alarming.

“It’s that outside influence of politicizing our schools, and making it not about the kids but about a corporate agenda,” said parent, blogger and current board critic Trisha McCombs. “It sounds crazy, but if you start to look at it, you start to see – it’s obvious the ALEC agenda is taking place right here under our noses.”

District leaders dismiss any such link.

“We’ve never had any interaction with them,” school board President John Carson said. “This a school board of Douglas County residents. Most of us are parents of kids in the schools. We all happen to believe parental choice is really the way to go. But it’s all Douglas County-based.

“We don’t work on developing our programs and policies with national groups. We have plenty of our own resources to do that.”

Douglas County resident Anne Kleinkopf, director of the nonprofit Taxpayers for Public Education (TFPE) that sued the Douglas County School District over its voucher program, believes the local reform efforts’ roots go deep.

“Douglas County has been chosen by allies of a nationwide, conservative, anti-public school movement to be the battleground for their movement,” she said. “All of these organizations have a very specific agenda for education, of which vouchers are only the first step. We are watching as the Douglas County school board is carrying that out step-by-step.”

The voucher program is part of that agenda, she believes. While the district maintains the voucher program — which allows the use of a portion of state funding to partially cover private school tuition — doesn’t take money from the public schools, Kleinkopf disagrees. It also benefits the private operators that run those schools, most of which are religious, she said.

In the long run, said Cindy Barnard, a co-plaintiff in the voucher case and TFPE president, “I believe this is about socio-economic segregation, a tiered system for the haves and have-nots.”

What is ALEC?

According to its website, ALEC is a nonpartisan organization whose more than 2,000 members work “to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level … through a public-private partnership of state legislators, the private sector and general public. Legislators welcome their private sector counterparts to the table as equals, working in unison to solve the challenges facing the nation.”

ALEC’s annual dues don’t reflect that partnership philosophy. A public-sector or legislative membership costs $50 per year; a private-sector membership starts at $7,000 and tops out at $25,000 annually.

A group called ALEC Exposed says the group’s self-description is smoke and mirrors.

“Through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights,” the ALEC Exposed website says. “These so-called ‘model bills’ reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations.”

ALEC’s Education Task Force, on which DeGrow sat in 2010, advocates for reform policies that promote parental choice and school accountability, consistent with Jeffersonian principles of free markets and federalism.

“We want kids to have excellent opportunities,” ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling said. “That’s not to the detriment of teacher and schools or to the goal of privatization.”

Chris Lubienski, an associate professor at the University of Illinois who studies education reform, said ALEC has a “pro-privatization agenda.”

“A lot of them do have a well-intentioned interest in changing education, but it often becomes more of a business model,” he said. “Evidence suggests that doesn’t work.”

Ties to ALEC

ALEC’s model legislation includes a Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act, approved by the ALEC board of directors in 2005. Like DCSD’s program, ALEC’s legislation calls for creating a scholarship program that provides children the option to use state funds to attend the public or private elementary or secondary school of their parents’ choice.

DeGrow, a Jefferson County resident, is senior policy analyst for the conservative Denver-based Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center, which supports vouchers. He also serves as chairman of DCSD’s Choice Scholarship School, an entity formed to oversee and administer the voucher program.

DeGrow said he doesn’t remember whether ALEC’s choice scholarship program was discussed during his service on DCSD’s Choice Task Force. He also doesn’t see cause for concern.

“No reform ideas or anything germinates in a vacuum,” he said. “It’s not like when Douglas County created this they hadn’t heard about scholarship programs in other states.

“Some people may want to connect dots and create conspiracy theories. But the interest for expanding choice and opportunity in Douglas County is something that definitely resonated with people in the community.”

DCSD spokeswoman Watson said she was a “low-level employee, an intern” for ALEC who “worked on a lot of different projects.”

ALEC documents show her title as “legislative director for education and empowerment policy.” Watson co-edited the 1993-94 ALEC publication “Restoring the American Dream: Empowerment and Education Policy,” which outlined performance-based pay systems for teachers including a career ladder and evaluation system, and an educational choice program giving parents funds to enroll students in participating private schools. Those ideas now are the policy of Douglas County Schools.

Today, Watson has little to say about her time at ALEC.

“I did work for ALEC immediately after I got out of college,” she said. “It was a great experience to live in Washington, D.C., learn about the legislative process and meet legislators from across the country.”

District emphasizes choice

Private company involvement in education is nothing new, DeGrow pointed out.

“We know that monopoly models of education are not the most efficient and beneficial to students,” he said. “So there’s room for partnerships with business in public education, as long as it’s ultimately in the interest of the student and family consumers of education, and they have the power to choose or not.”

Carson said the board’s common goal is simply to provide educational options and ensure the system’s accountability.

“The laws of Colorado have created a unique situation where we can do a lot of these innovations at the local school board level,” he said. “They are such that local school boards have tremendous autonomy and authority over the school district, which is pretty unique in the country.”

Kleinkopf remains convinced outside influences are changing DCSD.

“Our point is not to say ALEC (and related organizations) are bad,” she said. “It’s to say voters and citizens need to be aware what’s going on.”

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