Sunday, December 11, 2011

Government Behind the Scenes

There is an old saying that one should not watch the processes of sausage-making or legislation-creation, since both are sickeningly messy. But we ignore our legislators at our peril. While we can choose to remove sausage from our diets, no one can avoid the effects of legislation.

Our term-limited state legislature has fewer and fewer “old hands” every year, leaving more room for lobbyists to write the laws that get enacted. And write them they do!

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by major corporations and conservative foundations (see for a donor list), drafts model bills for state legislatures. These bills, of course, serve the interests of the big donors behind them. Many thousands of such bills have been introduced into legislatures and hundreds a year are enacted into law. As far back as 2002, Mother Jones was exposing this practice (, yet few citizens are aware of the wide and deep influence of this organization.

The “Private Chair” of ALEC’s Education Task Force is Mickey Revenaugh; he is co-founder and Senior Vice President of Connections Academy — “a leading national provider of virtual public school curriculum, technology and school management services.” Let me clarify: he and his business stand to make a lot of money from virtual (that is, on-line) schools. Should I be surprised, then, that virtual schools are the latest panacea for what ails American public education?

I have written before about my concerns regarding Senator Patrick Colbeck’s Senate Bill 619 to allow unlimited K–12 Cyber Schools. These schools could be run by anyone from anywhere, enrolling students from all over the state. There would be no “pilot program” to test the concept, despite its miserable failure elsewhere.

Let me detail that failure in Colorado, quoting and summarizing liberally from what Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network found in a joint ten-month study, published in October 2011 at Their analysis found that

  • Half the on-line students leave within a year, often further behind academically than when they started.
  • On-line schools produce three times more dropouts than graduates.
  • Millions of dollars go to virtual schools for students who have left them.
  • Traditional public schools then must educate students who come from on-line schools mid-year while receiving no funding to do so.
  • “Although most online school students do not appear to be at-risk students, their scores on statewide achievement tests are consistently 14 to 26 percentage points below state averages for reading, writing and math over the past four years.
  • “Students in online programs who took state reading tests in both 2009 and 2010 saw their proficiency rates go down.
  • “Students making the switch from traditional public schools to online also saw their scores drop.”
  • The state’s annual report found that “achievement of online students consistently lags behind those of non-online students, even after controlling for grade levels and various student characteristics,” including poverty, English language ability, and special education status.

Is it just me, or does this sound like an unmitigated disaster? Why, oh why, would we want to emulate it?

I brought this up at a recent panel discussion on How Michigan Learns, featuring former Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins, Public Sector Consultants specialist in education policy Michelle Herbon, and Executive Director of The Center for Michigan John Bebow. These panelists did not perceive a difference between using the Internet in education (as students involved in project-based learning do, or as in individual blended courses offered at a traditional school) and full-time virtual schools. Opposition to the latter does not mean I want to keep our students off the Internet and confine them to paper and pencil. But I do think we should learn from others’ mistakes, rather than replicate them. And I think we should be suspicious of where this idea comes from and what profit motives may be behind it.

And then there are the other, equally unsavory, possible motives.

Our legislation is not being written only by ALEC. Another big player is the Mackinac Center, which appears to lobby just as much as Common Cause, but it does so in secret and in violation of its non-profit legal status. The Rochester Citizen recently published (at an extended email conversation last June between Representative Tom McMillin (R-Rochester), the new chair of Michigan’s House Education Committee, and three Mackinac Center employees to craft the since-enacted legislation regarding teachers’ contributions to their health insurance costs. Individuals have a right to write to and try to influence legislators, no matter who they work for, but I have never had one of my representatives email me with anything like McMillin’s “my ability to impact this discussion could be assisted by hearing your thoughts..soon (and again, this is off the record - ok?)” And when one of the three Mackinac Center employees notes that “Our goal is outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan, which in practical terms means no more MEA,” then I really question the true motives and intent behind the entire discussion.

This is how our laws are being made — in secret, in consultation with groups who have secret agendas, who are funded by very wealthy organizations and individuals with priorities that most citizens do not share. I find this not a little frightening.

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