Are Business Interests Playing an Outsized Role in Virginia Ed Policy?

A study released by the ProgressVA Education Fund this week concludes that many education-related policy decisions in Virginia have been unduly influenced by business interests. Michael Alison Chandler of The Washington Post reports that over the past four years, a number of policies such as establishment of virtual schools and the creation of scholarships funded by businesses in exchange for tax credits were promoted by lobbying groups representing companies that stood to benefit the most from diverting public education money to private entities.

The report particularly singles out the efforts of Arlington-based American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – which includes legislators and businesses among its members – to introduce and pass a number of bills directly benefiting their members. However, Lindsay Russell, heads of ALEC’s Task Force on Education, said in a statement that the group’s chief concern was improving the quality of education for Virginia’s students. She noted that the group’s members come from both sides of the political spectrum, and what unites them is their dedication to raising the standards for the state’s education system.

The new report, “ALEC v. Kids: ALEC’s Assault On Public Education,” describes how K12 Inc., a Herndon-based online learning company and a member of ALEC’s Education Task Force, benefited from the group’s advocacy. The General Assembly in 2010 passed a virtual school law that was co-sponsored by ALEC members and reflected a legislative priority of the organization.

The company was the operator of a statewide virtual school started in 2009 through a partnership with the rural Carroll County public school system. The new law codified a process by which such partnerships could develop elsewhere.

The law and the group came under intense scrutiny later due a discovery of a loophole in the language that paid out more in per-student funding to virtual schools created by such partnerships than would have gone to local public schools if the students chose to enroll there instead.

In a statement, K12 defended its involvement in the legislative process, saying that as the largest provider of online learning in the country, it was only natural that it took an interest in any education policy developments.

ProgressVa published another report in 2012 that found more than 50 bills proposed in Virginia’s General Assembly that ALEC lobbied for or helped author in recent years, including measures on health care, voting rights, taxes, and education.
It also identified at least 115 current or former lawmakers with ties to the group, including House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) who was ALEC’s national chairman in 2009.