, , ,

“The Missouri General Assembly website is offline due to hardware failure.”

Honest to God, I didn’t make this up. When I tried to access the state lege website today, that is the message I got.

Last night I attended a town hall meeting with Sen. Jane Cunningham and four Republican state reps, and the same thing happened. They basically said there has been a “failure” on the part of the state of Missouri to educate its young people adequately.

For two and a half hours, the five elected officials told a group of about 40 people at Chesterfield City Hall that they are totally helpless in their attempt to provide a “quality education” to kids in unaccredited school districts.  In the St. Louis area, that would mean City of St. Louis and Riverview Gardens.

Why are these powerful legislators helpless?  Because the “education industry” has powerful lobbyists.  Because  no one would cooperate with them until the legislative session was almost over and time ran out.  Because school superintendents are more interested in school funding than in helping the kids in their districts.  Because they can’t convince their colleagues in the legislature to see things their way.  Because voters prefer to go to town hall meetings about puppy mills instead of school choice.

Anyone who knows about the American Legislative Exchange Council can see right through these folks.  They aren’t even trying to disguise their goals at this point.  Well, except Rep. Cole McNary, who just found out that “voucher” is a bad word.

Every citizen in this country who values public education, safe air to breathe, free and fair elections, quality health care at a reasonable price, working and middle class protections

should do some homework about  ALEC.

Founded in 1973 and funded by huge corporate membership fees, the American Legislative Exchange Council writes many of the bills introduced in state legislatures around the country.  Their goals, according to their website, are “Limited Government, Free Markets and Federalism.”  State legislators join for nominal fees and are treated to meetings, conferences and very nice perks. Believe it or not, this group has non-profit status despite the cozy relationship between corporate sponsors and  elected representatives.  

Remember when Dick Cheney invited the fossil fuel companies to the White House to write the country’s energy policy?  Same thing with ALEC and state reps.  Corporations write the bills, and our state reps and senators introduce them back home.  Very cozy.  And very damaging to the public good.

When asked how they can claim tax-exempt status, they say no one is “forcing” the state legislators to introduce their bills.  They just make “suggestions.”   Gimme a break.  

Source Watch has a good overview of ALEC and some of the media reports about it, including an investigative piece on NPR. (Wonder why corporate puppets in Congress want to slash NPR’s budget?)

Sen. Jane Cunningham is listed as the group’s treasurer as recently as 2009. She also mentioned last night that her husband was on the State Board of Education in 1993 when SB 380 was passed which started all the hubbub about students in unaccredited districts being able to enroll in a district other than their own.  She said there was no opposition to the bill in 1993.  That law is now being used by school choice parents which is at the heart of the Turner vs. Clayton School District court case.  Someone with more detailed knowledge of that case can explain it and what the “Turner fix” is.

My goal here is to connect the dots.  Many of our state legislators take their ideas from ALEC, as do legislators in other states.  That is why we are seeing almost identical bills being introduced in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Tennesee, Missouri and other places.  This is a well-orchestrated, well-funded, decades long effort to dismantle everything with the word “public” in it and open investment opportunities for private corporations.  Check out the list of issues ALEC gets involved in and the extensive staff working

on behalf of powerful corporations. Union busting is a hot one right now, but they are also the ones behind the “climate change hoax” and voter ID bills. One U of Wisconsin professor brought down the wrath of God on his head when he had the temerity to write about ALEC’s influence on the Wisconsin state legislature.

The most insidious part about this whole privatization of public schools is the lengths to which the proponents will go to give the impression they are heartbroken about the lack of opportunities for poor urban kids.  When asked last night about the number of kids who might be moving to neighboring districts as soon as this fall, Cunningham said she figured anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 and took 7,000 as a good guess.  When asked what happens to the kids left behind in the city schools with funding drained by those who leave, Dieckhaus said that is “their choice.”  The disdain for those families was shocking to members of the audience.  Mouths dropped open. People looked at each other in disbelief. This is the ugly secret behind ALEC’s agenda.  Every man for himself.  Sink or swim.  Survival of the fittest.  I thought we were evolving beyond that kind of cave man mentality, but I guess not.

Most of the people in the room were from county school districts and brought up legitimate points about the problems an influx of students will have on their districts. One woman from Clayton said there are many students who should be getting special education and the extra funding those resources require, but they do not choose to be tested and identified as special ed.  This was in response to Ms. Cunningham’s assurance that students with special needs will bring extra funding with them to their district of choice.

Cunningham and Dieckhaus agreed that they don’t want a huge influx of new students overwhelming county schools either. They would rather see charter schools and Catholic schools take those who want to move.  Cunningham stressed over and over that it is better for students not to have to be bused for two hours a day. She is hoping the implementation of SB 380 will “threaten the St. Louis City Schools with competition.”  When asked why she thought the City would miraculously win accreditation if threatened this way, she couldn’t answer.  She said “they’ve had 17 years” to clean up their act and haven’t done it.

Dr. Rea Beck, a child psychiatrist, stood up for the St. Louis City Schools and asked that the legislators stop calling them “horrible” places. She works with many excellent teachers in the city and mentors students.  She reminded us that it was when Mayor Slay’s choices for the school board lost their election that the state took over the district.  

At one point, Dieckhaus was starting to lose his temper, so Ms. Cunningham and Mr. McNary gently pushed him aside.  McNary, from Chestefield, reminded the agitated members of the audience that they should conform to the “Chesterfield way of doing things.”  Excuse us, Mr. McNary, we’re just dumb slobs who work for a living, pay taxes and want you to keep your greedy friends out of the public school business.

Dieckhaus, who is Chair of the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education, said that, if he had his way, he would “eliminate all school district boundaries and give the money to the parents.”  But his constituents “aren’t ready” for his ideas yet.  Yikes. Doing away with local control of public schools isn’t likely to become something his constituents will ever swallow.  So these free marketeers have to hide their
real motives behind some altruistic mantra about every child deserving a “quality education.”  

And, are you ready for this?  A member of the Ladue School Board said last night that she just found out that the Missouri Constitution prohibits public funds going to religious schools.  Separation of church and state is under attack all over the country, and “school choice” is just one of the ways to transfer public tax money to private and religious schools.  The Post Dispatch reported a month or so ago about how Mayor Slay made arrangements for his Catholic school alma mater to be used for a charter school with the building rent of $10,000 a month going to the Archdiocese.  Say what?

The cruelly ironic part of this whole story is that charter schools do not perform any better than St. Louis City Public Schools. Test scores for public and charter K-8 schools in St. Louis are listed on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website.  Based on the 2010 MAP test scores, SLPS outperformed charters on 72% of the individual tests.  Rep. Dieckhaus recognizes this.  In fact, he asked a parent why she would want to send her child to a charter school knowing that the school wasn’t any better than the public school, and she said she wanted her kid to be “safe.”  Safety is an important part of why parents want to opt out of public schools, according to Dieckhaus.

If you want to know if your state rep or senator belongs to ALEC, ask them if they are going to New Orleans  August 3-6 this year.  Then ask them if they really believe giving rich folks more tax credits for providing “scholarships” to poor kids will cure the cultural ills plaguing our country.

One parent in the audience who identified himself as an economist and active with the math curriculum in his school district made the obvious point that American culture is very different from that in countries with the top math and science test scores.  He used Singapore as an example.  Students study longer hours, have little “play” time after school and are expected by their parents to reach their highest potential.  Compare that to our American TGIF culture where hard work is to be avoided at all costs. And where we idolize celebrities who contribute nothing to the nation’s success. Don’t you think kids pick up on these messages?

That audience member was right when he said the problems we face as a nation go way beyond public school vs. charters.  The corporations eager to open for-profit schools know this and don’t really give a damn.  Their goal is to make money.  Period.