At least nine Republican lawmakers from Colorado are meeting this week with a secretive national group focused on crafting ready-to-go conservative legislation.
And next year, that group, the American Legislative Exchange Council – better known as ALEC – will be in Denver.
This year’s three-day conference in Indianapolis, which concludes today, allows state lawmakers to take a deep dive into model legislation that they can bring back to their states for 2017. On the agenda at this year’s conference are such hot-button issues as free speech on college campuses, free trade and the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency. But the group’s biggest focus is education – from school choice to school vouchers to how conservatives can mold state implementation of the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Bills inspired by the conference should be expected next legislative session.
At least one Colorado lawmaker has already begun to stake out her ALEC-modeled legislation, which would ensure the government does not gain access to private digital communications without a warrant.
Rep. Lois Landgraf of Fountain wrote Thursday on her Facebook page: “Did you know that a state or local government entity, such as law enforcement, can access any of your digital communication if it’s older than 180 days without a warrant? All they need is an administrative subpoena which does not require a judges approval.”
So, who’s this ALEC guy?
ALEC’s not a person. It’s a group. Founded in 1973, it bills itself as a nonpartisan organization of state lawmakers “dedicated to the principles of limited government, free market and federalism.” It’s a 501(c)3, an IRS nonprofit designation. It has to disclose to whom it donates, but not where it get its money. Neither does the group make its membership rosters public, though it says about 25 percent of the nation’s state lawmakers are members, as well as about 300 corporations and foundations.
The group won’t say who, other than keynote speakers, is attending this week’s conference. But Rep. Lori Saine of Firestone, who, along with Senate President Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs, serves as ALEC’s Colorado state chair, told The Colorado Independent that this week’s attendees from Colorado include Cadman, Senate Majority Leader Mark Scheffel of Parker, Sen. Kevin Grantham of Cañon City (who sits on the Joint Budget Committee). From the House: Assistant House Minority Leader Polly Lawrence of Roxborough Park, Rep. Landgraf of Fountain, and Rep. Janak Joshi of Colorado Springs.
Also in attendance, Kimmi Lewis of Elbert County, who defeated Rep. Tim Dore of Elizabeth in the June 28 Republican primary and is likely to succeed Dore in the November election. Sen. Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs, also from the Joint Budget Committee, is at the conference, as well.
Calls and emails to several of these legislators by The Colorado Independent were not returned.
Membership for state lawmakers in ALEC is $50 per year. That’s not even close to being enough to fund the organization, which in 2014 had a $6.2 million budget. Most of its funding comes from its corporate members, ranging from big pharmaceutical companies to oil-and-gas giants like ExxonMobil to Walmart. Among ALEC’s biggest contributors, according to opensecrets.org, is Koch Industries, which funds a network of conservative organizations like Americans for Prosperity. AFP’s chief executive officer, Luke Hilgemann, was a keynote speaker at the conference this week.
ALEC promises its corporate partners “you have a voice and a vote” in shaping state and national policy. It added a new sponsor this year that’s already raising eyebrows: AARP, the nonprofit that advocates for seniors. The Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit tracking the conference this week, called on AARP to drop out, claiming that ALEC and its members actually work against AARP interests, such as ALEC’s decades-long efforts to privatize Social Security.
The conference brochure also lists among its sponsors the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Colorado, which pushed for legislation this year that would slowly allow grocery and convenience stores to transition from selling 3.2 percent by volume beer and wine to full strength. The wholesalers group also fought vigorously against ballot measures backed by Safeway and King Soopers to strike down Colorado’s laws restricting beer and wine sales in grocery stores to 3.2 percent products.
Other conference sponsors include Americans for Prosperity, Comcast, the Club for Growth, Duke Energy, the DOW Chemical Company, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the online education giant K12.
What does ALEC do?
The group’s main objective is to prod state legislatures to adopt model policies based on ALEC principles. Those anti-regulatory policies are in development throughout the year, but rolled out and discussed at the group’s annual conference, where many become pre-written, pre-packaged legislative proposals that lawmakers can take back to their states.
In the past couple of years, Colorado’s crew of ALEC-affiliated lawmakers have focused largely on federal lands. The most recent effort was in 2015, when Lambert tried to push through an ALEC-modeled bill to wrest Colorado’s federal lands from the exclusive control of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and put those lands under concurrent jurisdiction of the feds and the state. The 2015 bill was at least the third attempt in recent memory to make that change in Colorado, although ALEC has been pushing for states to take control of federal lands issue for decades, according to PR Watch. All of those Colorado proposals have failed.
Last year, two Colorado Senate Republicans, Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling and John Cooke of Greeley, attempted to push ALEC model legislation to limit regulation of carbon emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency. That measure, which drew disapproval from Gov. John Hickenlooper, quickly died in its only committee hearing. In 2010, Colorado’s controversial bi-partisan legislation, SB-191, which linked teacher evaluations to measurable student performance, was immediately incorporated by ALEC at its annual conference two months after passage. Now known as the “Great Teachers and Leaders Act,” it is ALEC’s model legislation on teacher tenure and has been adopted in at least two other states, including a version in New Jersey signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie.
ALEC seeks to change tenure rules for K-12 teachers. Under its proposal, teachers can earn tenure after three years of student academic growth, but that protection can be revoked following two consecutive years of insufficient student growth. Half of a teacher’s evaluation must be based on student achievement. Critics point out the proposal doesn’t take into account factors that can impact student achievement, such as family issues.
Seven current and former teachers from Denver Public Schools have sued the state over SB-191, claiming DPS used it to get rid of 100 tenured teachers without cause. The lawsuit is awaiting action from the state Supreme Court.
What kinds of legislation is the group working on now?
This year’s conference is heavy on education – specifically the ideas of the late economist Milton Friedman, considered by many to be the father of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private education and the move to privatize public education.
“How do we get from where we are to where we want to be — to a system in which parents control the education of their children?” Friedman told an ALEC conference in 2006. “Of course, the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it…The answer, in my opinion, is choice, that you have to change the way government money is directed. Instead of it being used to finance schools and buildings, you should decide how much money you are willing to spend on each child and give that money, provide that money in the form of a voucher to the parents of the children so the parents can choose a school that they regard as best for their child.”
Speakers at this year’s ALEC conference included Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and William Bennett, secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan and the founder of K12, a national, private online educational system that has five online academies in Colorado.
Bennett announced that he’s spearheading a campaign – Conservative Leaders for Education – tied to the new Every Student Succeeds Act. The act, bi-partisan legislation signed into law last December by President Obama, is the successor to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. According to the White House, the new legislation will cut down on the overuse of standardized tests and “one-size-fits-all mandates” and allow states and school districts to develop their own strategies for improvement.
That’s where conservatives believe their next victory in education reform could take place.
Bennett says the time is ripe for Republicans to design ESSA implementation, given that Republicans control more state legislatures than at any time in history. And in states where Republicans don’t control both chambers and/or the governor’s mansion, he notes, they control state boards of education and superintendents’ offices.
His assertions are reflected in a map produced by Education Week, which said that ESSA will likely be developed by state GOP power players. In 22 states, Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s seat. In six of those states, a Republican is also the superintendent of state education or in a similar position.
In Colorado, Republicans control the Senate; Democrats have the House and governor’s office, and the Commissioner of Education is hired by the state Board of Education, which Republicans control with a 4-3 edge. No state, Education Week reported, has the “trifecta” of Democrats in charge of both chambers and the governor’s mansion.
Conservative Leaders for Education lists eight lawmakers in the campaign so far, including state Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
Hill, who is up for re-election this fall, is unlikely to see eye-to-eye with Bennett, who has taken heat for his support of Common Core, one of Hill’s favorite targets.
Whether the Conservative Leaders for Education group is able to push the conservative agenda for ESSA in Colorado next year will depend on which party controls the General Assembly.
Republicans hold a razor-thin one-seat margin in the Senate, which they believe they can keep or even grow, given that two Democrats (Sens. Linda Newell of Littleton and Mary Hodge of Brighton) are term-limited and in swing districts Republicans think they can win. Republicans have one seat that could go the other way – held by Sen. Laura Woods of Arvada – that they are fighting to hold. In the House, Republicans would need to hold onto what they have and add two more seats, which they also believe is doable.
Colorado has been an incubator for the kind of education reforms Republicans cheer. That includes a 30 percent increase in the number of charter schools in the past decade. It also includes an attempt by the Douglas County School District to set up a taxpayer-funded voucher program that allows students to go to private and/or religious schools both inside and outside the district, and elimination of collective bargaining with the teachers’ union. Similarly, conservative reformers tried to end collective bargaining with teachers in the Thompson School District in Loveland, which led to a lawsuit from the union. The issue was resolved when two new members, not part of the conservative majority, were elected last November. The teachers’ contract, which had been in limbo for almost an entire year, was immediately approved by the new board. And then there was the furor in Jefferson County, where three conservative school board members were ousted in a recall election last November after efforts to push conservative reforms in funding charter schools and tying teacher pay to their evaluations.
Correction: K12 is not affiliated with Connections Academy.
Photo credit: Alyssa Laurel via Creative Commons on Flikr.