EDITOR’S NOTE: On Monday. we published this video of educator-activist Sabrina Stevens confronting members of ALEC’s education task force over their destructive plans for America’s schools. Below, she shares more about her experience inside the doors of ALEC’s highly secretive proceedings.
“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.” –Frederic Bastillat
It’s one thing to know that corporate and elitist special interest groups have bought themselves premium access to the inner workings of what’s supposed to be our government.
It’s another thing entirely to actually watch them in action.
Last week, after discovering that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was having a policy conference and task force meetings here in Washington, DC, I decided it presented a good opportunity to bring a grassroots message to some of the people playing a key role in the privatization of public schools. While there are many front groups and individuals who play a role in this process, one of the key reasons the privatization movement has been so successful is because of its unparalleled access to the state lawmaking process, which ultimately sets a huge proportion of the context in which all of our other actions take place.
My original plan was simple: make a banner; snag a Friday morning RootsCamp session time on education reform; get people to sign said banner as we talked through new ways of thinking about solutions for the schools and communities we love; then crash the ALEC conference with the banner, get video of said crashing, and tweet my little fingers off.
But I didn’t get the session time I needed to do that, and I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience ALEC firsthand. On a purely practical level, yes, I’d spent time making that banner and planning to attend RootsCamp. But on a moral level, I’m fed up with the privatizers getting to go about their business completely undisturbed, while trampling all over our ability to do the same. So come hell or high water, I was going to say something to ALEC, it was gonna be on video, and that was that. (This whole “having my chosen career stolen from me” thing has made me really stubborn.) I prepared a statement about the value of public schools on the fly, committed it to memory, did a few last-minute preparations, and headed with a friend over to the Grand Hyatt.
Once there, I tried to do my best job of blending in, and it actually worked. I walked straight through the doors, and was never asked to leave. A little more at ease, I decided, “Well, if I’ve actually figured out a way to get and stay in, why not observe a while?” I made it in just before they closed the doors (quite tightly, I’d later find), and settled into an available seat.
ALEC’s education task force, like all the others, is a mix of state-level elected officials (their so-called “public” members), as well as “private” members: lobbyists from for-profit companies, and lobbyists from corporate-funded think tanks. After greeting each other, Committee Chair and Iowa State Representative Greg Forristall called for some opening remarks from Indiana State Rep. Cindy Noe, who proceeded to tell the room about how wonderfully their new education policies were unfolding in Indiana. Nevertheless, she called on the organization to start looking beyond affecting the structure of the education system, and into looking more closely at the content of what’s taught in schools. “If we’re not careful,” she charged, “we will end up with a full generation of secular humanists, of multiculturalists– with kids who don’t know real American values.”
For me, that was turning-point number one. By then, all nerves had disappeared, replaced by total umbrage.
They started talking policy. They started out by looking quickly at the model bills they want to “sunset,” or have expire, part of an overall effort to try to change their profile.
At this point in its history, ALEC is in damage control mode. Unlike the past 30 or so years, during which it has been operating more or less invisibly, the group now faces more scrutiny than ever, particularly as more people see the incredible work being done by groups like the Center for Media and Democracy, Common Cause, and ALEC Exposed to unmask their aims and tactics. After tragedies like the murders of unarmed teens like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, people are more aware than ever of just how closely public policy affects real life—and how important it is to know who makes those policies, and what their interests are.
Looking at the projected list of bills the task force was taking under consideration was a chilling experience for me. As models intended to become legislation, it’s easy for them to look like nothing more than a bunch of dry words on a page. But having had the experience of living through them, then organizing with people around them, and then studying them, I’ve started to look at those dry words very differently.
Pardon the geeky metaphor, but it felt a bit like that scene in The Matrix where Cypher is looking at the stream of 1s and 0s, but after so much exposure, he can visualize people and objects through the code. That’s what public policy has started to feel like for me: except instead of a fake reality manufactured by digital code, ours is a lived reality bound by the set of decisions—the ideas of those decision-makers—embodied in our legal code. (And unlike Cypher, I do not agree that ignorance is bliss—or that backing down is an option.)
So for example, if we look at the union-busting laws ALEC favors and pushes throughout the country, we can start to see our fellow workers who are going to have a harder time organizing as a result, and who will in turn have a much harder time commanding the living wage and benefits they need to feed, house and take care of themselves and their families. We can see the extra time and energy a growing number of us will have to spend working instead of spending time with our loved ones, or participating in any of the different activities that could help us assert our political rights (especially important since another ALEC task force pushed policies to make it harder for some of us to vote), or doing all of the other fulfilling and empowering things people can do when we have “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will.”
Thinking as a teacher, I also can’t help but consider how all of those things will impact the classroom. If students’ guardians are working 70 or 80 hours a week because their bosses refuse to pay them a decent hourly wage, those bosses—and the people who let them get away with this—are making it unnecessarily difficult for said guardians to do things like attend parent-teacher conferences or get actively involved in the rest of the school community. By depressing wages (and dodging taxes), they’re also destroying the public funding base that supports public services like schools. And that means they’re forcing students to live with the social and emotional consequences that come with being surrounded by overworked and/or undervalued adults — both at home and at school.
So those policies bother me just as much as the education policies under discussion in that particular room, as does the fact that the people making those policies have no clue about the lived experiences of those of us they impose them upon. Though our society has a bad habit of trying to force different issues into various, separate boxes, they simply cannot be treated as isolated bits. And there’s a reason why government is supposed to be of, by and for all the people: that’s the only way to get all of the information necessary to make decisions that work (more or less) for everyone, not just the people in power.
And this was turning-point number two. By now, I’d completely forgotten the original message I’d planned to deliver, deleted from my memory as I watched how ALEC’s voting process works. As Mansplainer-in-Chief Forristall points out around minute 1:00 of the video, the public members and private members vote sequentially, but in each other’s presence. When they called for the public members’ vote on a bill to sunset, I heard just one voice say, “Aye.” When they called for the private members’ vote, a chorus of voices said “Aye.” Realizing that there were clearly more private members in attendance than public ones, and recognizing that those gathered had no problem with the impropriety of that fact, was just galling to me.
That set off a string of very visceral realizations about just how insidious this process is. How comfortable would most people be publicly disagreeing with the very people who have spent loads of money supplying them “scholarships” and travel and posh accommodations — especially while outnumbered? How much can we expect our local officials to continue identifying with little old us, when they start being regularly flown far from their home districts to be wined and dined by national and international corporate lobbyists? And how much harder will that make it for us to change the outcome of a largely predetermined policymaking process, when we only find out that a bill is being pushed a few weeks or days before a vote, while they’ve been locked away planning these things for a year or more in advance?
I couldn’t take it any more. By now, my heart was pounding so hard I could practically see the lapels on my blazer fluttering. My eyes focused on the microphone positioned closest to my part of the room, placed there to offer the opportunity for members of the task force to ask each other questions (“Democracy for me, but not for thee…”). Before I knew it I was up there. Somehow, I managed to remain composed, despite feeling ready to scream, and I said my piece before I could no longer keep it together.
Had I prepared that statement in advance, I actually wouldn’t have changed much about it—except to say that while they might currently have the legal authority to make these kinds of policies, they have absolutely no moral authority to do so. Not so long as we’re playing on an uneven field, where our so-called leaders are allowed to sit side-by-side with deep-pocketed lobbyists, making decisions together behind doors closed so tightly it’s hard to get out, let alone in. (And whatever happened to sunshine laws?) No matter how dryly and politely they try to present themselves, there is something fundamentally savage about people who allow their privilege and greed to completely blind them to their impact on everyone else.
I’m done tolerating this. I refuse to continue living in a society where some people are essentially allowed to lie to the public with impunity, and buy the ability to disempower other people. I know I’m far from the only person who feels this way. But if we want our power back, those of us who share the same interests (which does not necessarily mean the same ideas) must unite and show the tiny group who doesn’t that they can’t trick, divide or hide from us anymore. As I believe I demonstrated, this doesn’t always have to be an ugly process—but yes, it will require some disruption to the powers-that-be.
We have the right to participate in genuine decision-making processes, not a rigged parody of such. And we have the right to make sure our various ideas can compete (and/or converge) on a level playing field. That means we have a responsibility to stand up, together, and peacefully but forcefully confront anyone who consistently reveals their intention to prevent that.
Sabrina Stevens is a teacher-turned-education advocate and writer living in Washington, DC. She works to elevate the voices of public school communities in the education reform conversation, and recently joined the American Federation of Teachers to lead its Voices from the Classroom project.