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Public education
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University of Wisconsin-Madison professors Julie Underwood and Julie Mead are expressing concern over the growing corporate influence on public education in an article published Monday.

In particular, they are highly critical of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which connects conservative state legislators with like-minded think tanks, corporations and foundations to develop "model legislation" that can be enacted at the state level.

Underwood is the dean of UW-Madison's School of Education, while Mead chairs the ed school's department of educational leadership and policy analysis. The two make their opinions known in an article they co-authored for the March issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine, which serves members of the PDK professional organization for educators.

Underwood says much of the information in the article is an outgrowth of research she conducted while helping get the website up and running last summer.

"At that time I was looking at a lot of (ALEC) model legislation that had been leaked and I've continued to look at this kind of legislation since then," she says. "So this (article) is my research."

Underwood and Mead start their piece by noting the range of similar bills proposed in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio early in 2011 that "sought sweeping changes to each state's collective bargaining statutes and various school funding provisions." Each state is headed by Republican governors and has Republican-controlled state legislatures.

"What was going on?" Underwood and Mead write. "How could elected officials in multiple states suddenly introduce essentially the same legislation?"

The answer, they argue, is ALEC. And the UW-Madison professors are no fans of the organization's motives, writing that "ALEC's positions on various education issues make it clear that the organization seeks to undermine public education by systematically defunding and ultimately destroying public education as we know it."

Citing past research and articles, Underwood and Mead write that model legislation from ALEC seeks to "influence teacher certification, teacher evaluation, collective bargaining, curriculum, funding, special education, student assessment, and numerous other education and education-related issues. Common throughout the bills are proposals to decrease local control of schools by democratically elected school boards while increasing access to all facets of education by private entities and corporations."

Privatization takes many forms, the authors note, including vouchers, tax incentives for sending kids to private schools and charter schools operated by for-profit organizations.

"Today, ALEC calls this approach ‘choice' and renames vouchers ‘scholarships,' but its aim is clear: Defund and dismantle public schools," particularly low-income and urban schools, the authors write.

The most noteworthy ALEC-backed piece of education legislation in Wisconsin is the Milwaukee school voucher program for low-income children. Implemented in 1990, it was the first such program in the nation and was pushed through by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, an early ALEC member. Some have long argued this move is the first step in ALEC's goal of privatizing public schools.

The state's voucher program, which provides taxpayer funds for families to send their children to private schools, was expanded by Gov. Scott Walker in the state budget passed last June.

Just this past week, Assembly Republicans refused to vote on a bill that would restrict the expansion of Wisconsin's school voucher program. (To view's extensive list of ALEC-backed education bills, click here.)

Underwood and Mead write that this "motivation for dismantling the public education system -- creating a system where schools do not provide for everyone -- is ideological and motivated by profit."

Underwood and Mead add that "champions of public education have a new set of questions to ask whenever legislation is introduced:

"Is the sponsor a member of ALEC?

"Does the bill borrow from ALEC model legislation?

"What corporations had a hand in drafting the legislation?

"What interests would benefit or even profit from its passage?"

No matter what one thinks of ALEC's policies, the authors contend ALEC provides corporations with unprecedented access to, and power over, state legislators.

"It's interesting to me that (ALEC) has managed to stay below the radar and secretive for many, many years," Underwood said in a phone conversation. "It piques my curiosity. Why have they worked so hard to be secretive all of these years?"

ALEC gained notoriety in Wisconsin in March 2011 when UW-Madison professor William Cronon examined in a blog post "who's really behind" Republican efforts to attack public employee unions, require identification to vote, and scale back environmental laws, among other measures. His conclusion? ALEC.

A short time later, Cronon let the world know his emails were the target of an open records request from the Republican Party of Wisconsin, a move that garnered national headlines and was criticized by some as an attempt to intimidate a professor for offering his perspective on political issues. At the time, the open records request and blowback seemed to shake Cronon, but Underwood says she isn't particularly concerned about any potential fallout from her article.

"Well, this is my research and these are my thoughts," she says. "I've been a public school advocate my entire professional career. I realize there are certain people who are going to disagree with me. But I think this is important information for people to know and think about."