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Do Leaders Have Strong Enough Advocacy Skills?

Since the 2010 elections, when conservative leaders took control of many states, there has been an upsurge of legislation advancing charter schools, promoting the privatization of public schools and weakening the education profession.  As Julie Underwood and Julie Mead point out in their Kappan Article, this anti-public school, anti-teacher legislation is no accident. It is the work of an advocacy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  ALEC is an organization made up of close to 2,000 conservative state legislators. It promotes privatization and corporate interests in multiple legislative areas, including education, voting laws, healthcare, the environment, the economy, etc., by drafting model legislation that conservative legislators can take back to their states and introduce as their own "reform" ideas. Close to 1,000 of ALEC’s model bills are introduced each year, and around 1/5 of those become law. The legislation according to Rizzo (2012), is “fast—ready-made, just add water, written in language that can withstand partisan debate and legal scrutiny.” 

In education, ALEC fingerprints can be seen on state-level efforts “to privatize public education and to turn educators into at-will employees who may be fired for any reason.”  For the most part, ALEC’s agenda for education is synonymous with "reform" in education today.  What does ALEC’s reform initiative include? Among others, ALEC’s model legislation promotes: expanding vouchers, charters, and other forms of privatization; lowering standards for entry into the teaching profession; opening up new opportunities for profit-making entities, expansion of for-profit online charter schools.

Those who study ALEC say legislation in the states is rarely identical to ALEC's models, but, in many cases, the bills contain the same core concepts, with minor editing, and are introduced by lawmakers who are ALEC members. Examples of the model legislation as well as the members and supporters of ALEC (among other things) can be viewed on the ALEC Exposed website

Although his spokesman, Michael Dreniak, denied any connection to ALEC, a recent article in the Newark Star-Ledger detailed how closely New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's "reform" legislation is modeled on ALEC's work in education. But New Jersy is not, unfortunately, ALEC’s only follower. Numerous states have introduced ALEC’s model education legislation, including Arizona, Wisconsin, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire and Maine.  The Michigan state legislature, in fact, just voted to increase the number of cyber-charters in the state and the number of students these schools could enroll.  Cyber charters are only one of the many controversial proposals, and both the New York Times and the Washington Post have published exposes of the for-profit cyber-charter corporations that are benefitting from this legislation.

Diane Ravitch ended a recent blog post for the Horace Mann League by asking where the leadership is to oppose ALEC.  I firmly believe we have many leaders, including teachers, principals, parents, etc., who are willing to oppose ALEC and the other forcers focused on unraveling widespread and high quality public education.  And some leaders, like those in Long Island who opposed the state's unreasonable educator evaluation programs, have begun to stand up and speak out. Others are willing, but they may not be ready.

Do current and future leaders have strong enough advoacy skills to ensure their students, teachers, staff and communities are provided the opportunity to learn, teach and reach their potential?  I think this is unlikely. Contexts are changing and the knowledge and skills that leaders need change are changing right along with them. Leadership preparation and professional development providers as well as community organizations must keep in mind the range of knowledge and skills leaders need, including knowledge and skills around advocacy and the politics of education.  

Resources are available.  Efforts to build advocacy capacity, like that provided by the Save Our Schools group, are significant. Similarly, UCEA’s new curriculum module on developing advocacy leadership is a substantive resource that includes readings, video links and practice-anchored powerful learning experiences.  Finally, the Politics of Education Association has a free syllabi collection.  If you know of other resources available for the preparation of educational leaders around politics and advocacy, now is the time to put them to use and share them widely. 

Reader Comments (2)

This is why I think leaders (and teachers) need really strong law courses. So much of this gets referred to as policy, but it is all law - even at the local level. Law, of course, stikes most folks as a scary or dreadful thing, but without understanding these systems it is hard for anyone to advocate at a level comparable to ALEC. One does not need to be a lawyer, either, to play at this level. In any given state, you will find a handful of highly influential superintendents. Those folks know the systems and they know the players - and they are not afraid of any of it.

Also, we need to support more structured and multi-university efforts - such as Kevin Welner's National Education Policy Center ( I've published model legislation there as have others and Kevin does an outstanding job getting the research recognized. Hardly a paper comes out of that place without a national news story to accompany it. And, having published that model legislation, I can now say that some states are considering implementing similar concepts to what we talked about in the brief. It was really amazing working with NEPC, so certainly there are examples within our own field of what it looks like when it works.

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJustin B.

Great point about educational law. Do you know of any studies that look at how much of an average school or district leader's time is committed to legal/policy issues in a given week or month? Comparing that to the emphasis given to law/policy/advocacy in the standards and in prep programs would be interesting. Agreed, NEPC is an incredibly important resource.

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Young

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