Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is speaking to the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, on Thursday in Denver, but protests from left-wing activists and teacher groups started Wednesday.
Hundreds marched from the state Capitol in Denver to the Hyatt Regency, the site of the speech, with signs reading: "Dump Betsy DeVos," "Take Devouchers Elsewhere" and "Stop School Privatization!"
DeVos' speeches have drawn notable protests before, as when she gave the commencement address at a historically black college. This time, her entire policy agenda is at issue. Ties between the DeVos family and ALEC go back decades. And there is barely any daylight between ALEC's education policies and the ones DeVos has advanced in her role as secretary.
Inez Feltscher, director of ALEC's education policy work, tells NPR Ed that DeVos "has been a wonderful champion for school choice both before and after becoming secretary of education, and advancing educational choice is one of the key issues we work on here at ALEC."
Every year ALEC brings together state legislators, free-market conservative lobbyist groups and corporate sponsors. Currently listed on the "leadership" page of its website are executives from the insurance, pharmaceutical, energy and telecom industries, as well as Don Lee, a former Republican legislator from Colorado turned head lobbyist for the for-profit online education company K12 Inc.
Together, these groups collaborate on model legislation. ALEC has a track record of getting the laws that it writes on the books in dozens of states with few changes.
"We see the same pieces of legislation being proposed in state, after state, after state," says Julie Underwood, an endowed chair in education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has been investigating ALEC's actions in education for the past five years. She has tracked versions of ALEC bills through public records in state libraries.
In education, says Underwood, ALEC backs "vouchers, vouchers, vouchers," with variants such as education tax credits and tax-credit scholarships. They have written policies that make it easier to open charter schools, and to run for-profit and virtual schools. Other model bills weaken teacher tenure and other protections associated with unions, and also promote digital learning.
ALEC created the original school voucher bill in 1984. Free-market economist Milton Friedman, widely credited as the originator of the idea, spoke at the annual gathering in 2006. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, an organization critical of ALEC, Friedman said the ultimate goal was "abolishing the public school system," but that vouchers form a "politically feasible" way of getting there.
He argued that instead of using government money "to finance schools and buildings," money should go directly to parents, "so the parents can choose a school that they regard as best for their child."
DeVos uses similar rhetoric, as in an address several months ago to the policy organization she founded, the American Federation for Children:
"[W]e need to focus everything about education on individual students — funding, supporting and investing in them. Not in buildings; not in systems."
ALEC releases an annual "report card," ranking states by to how far they have gone in adopting policies ALEC supports. The state's friendliness toward charter and voucher schools gets the most weight; the list also includes test scores, deregulation of home schooling and access to technology in the classroom.
States that top other lists for student performance, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, earn a C and C-minus on this list. Head of the class are Arizona, which has "one of the most expansive school-voucher programs in the nation," and Florida, which has been called a "choice mecca."
The connection between promoting vouchers and technology in the classroom may not be obvious. The common thread is a quest for profit, argues Underwood, the scholar who researches ALEC. "If you diminish the public system, the money will flow to private for-profit providers."
One model bill introduced in 2005, the "Virtual Public Schools Act," provides a particularly clear benefit to companies like K12 Inc.
Per ALEC's website, the policy says "virtual schools" that provide instruction completely online should receive the same state resources per pupil as a public school that must provide classrooms, transportation and lunch. This despite recurring questions about the performance of many online for-profit schools.
DeVos' ties to ALEC and K12 Inc are longstanding. The organization she founded and led, the American Federation for Children, has long been listed as a financial contributor to ALEC. She and her husband, Dick DeVos, have disclosed that they owned stock in K12 Inc. And Richard DeVos, Betsy DeVos' father-in-law, received ALEC's "Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award" in 1993, for his promotion of market-based school reform.
Still, the timing is interesting. House Republicans have just rejected the school choice expansions in Trump's initial budget request. Recent studies have shown mixed-to-negative results for voucher programs and there have been successful fights against voucher expansion even in staunchly red states like Texas.
"Most education policy is still set at the state level and should continue to be set in the states," Feltscher, with ALEC, notes. "That being said, we are thrilled to have a Department that is a vocal champion of the idea of school choice and look forward to our state leaders being a key part of the discussion at the federal level."
If school choice does increase on DeVos' watch, it is likely to happen as it has been happening for decades: state-by-state, rather than on the federal level, with ALEC's guidance along the way.