The Washington Post

Business interests influencing education laws in Virginia, report says

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the impact of a virtual school law passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 2010.

Education policies approved in Virginia over the past four years to establish virtual schools and give businesses tax credits for needy students to attend private schools are among many laws that have been promoted by a conservative advocacy group that represents business interests, according to a study released last week.

The report by a liberal advocacy group describes efforts by the Arlington-based American Legislative Exchange Council, which has a membership of legislators and corporations, to pass laws that divert public education funds to private companies.

“Virginians need to know who is representing [them], and how cozy their lawmakers are with the for-profit education industrial complex,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of the ProgressVA Education Fund, based near Charlottesville, which authored the study with a network of eight other state-based organizations.

Lindsay Russell, director of the Task Force on Education for ALEC, said in a statement that the group is a “nonpartisan nonprofit because we realize to produce the best outcomes for students, it is necessary to welcome collaboration from all schools of thought. Our members, public and private, take very seriously their responsibility to provide the best opportunities to prepare our children for successful futures.”

It’s not uncommon for advocacy groups to lobby on behalf of their interests and even to participate in drafting legislation.

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.

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, benefitted 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.

That virtual school later came under scrutiny because of a loop hole that allowed the company to collect a larger share of state per pupil funding than many of its students would receive if they attended their local public schools in other counties.

Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12, Inc., said the company participates with “a lot of different education organizations that discuss and talk about education policy and digital learning.”

“We are the leading provider [of full-time virtual schools] in the country, so that would be an appropriate role for us,” he said.

The Carroll County school board voted this spring to discontinue its partnership with the company, citing administrative and liability concerns.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.

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