On Feb. 11, House Bill 315 came to the floor of the Montana House of Representatives. The measure sought to legalize the establishment of public charter schools in the state, and as added incentive for lawmakers, proponents pointed out that Montana is one of only eight states in the country that has yet to pass such legislation. What followed was a heated debate over the bill’s exemption of charter schools from state regulation and the glaring lack of technical qualifications required of charter school teachers.
In the middle of that discussion, HB 315 sponsor Rep. Austin Knudsen, a Republican from Culbertson, inserted a rather random defense. “In the committee hearing it was suggested that this is an ALEC bill,” Knudsen said. “It’s not. It actually comes from the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.”
The source of the proposal itself may seem insignificant compared to the impassioned arguments on both sides of the charter school issue. But Knudsen’s not-so-subtle attempt to distance his legislation from ALEC—the nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council—speaks to a bigger story at play in statehouses across the nation. ALEC touts itself as a “nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.” Critics question the third branch of that “partnership,” alleging ALEC is little more than a corporate “bill mill.” Hundreds of bills introduced by legislators in dozens of states over the years have all had one obsequious tie: They originated with ALEC. More specifically, they originated from the collaboration of lawmakers and corporate representatives brought together by ALEC for the purpose of drafting model legislation.
Knudsen put distance between HB 315 and ALEC for a good reason. The group has increasingly come under fire in recent years. Opponents of the charter school measure don’t just fear the bill would enable private for-profit corporations to fund unregulated educational institutions in Montana. They worry it marks yet another attempt by ALEC and its members to push a controversial national agenda in our state legislature.
The suspicion isn’t unfounded; a similar proposal, HB 603, was carried in the 2011 session by Rep. Mark Blasdel, the current House Speaker and a member of ALEC’s Education Task Force. Blasdel says he was asked to carry HB 603 by the Montana Family Foundation, whose partner organizations Alliance Defense Fund and the Family Research Council happen to have strong ties to ALEC.
“If folks are just going to basically scissor and paste ideas that come from a national organization funded by the right-wing Koch brothers to do harm to established institutions in Montana like, in particular, public schools, we have a big concern,” says Eric Feaver, executive director of MEA-MFT. “That’s what’s going on here. The most evidence of this is the charter school stuff. These bills didn’t get written on a desk here in Montana by anybody.”
ALEC was founded in 1973 by a clutch of Republican politicians around the core principles of small government, individual liberty and the free market. Today, the national nonprofit has become the target of increased skepticism by watchdog groups and the media, who have successfully tied ALEC to notable corporate interests including Koch Industries, led by controversial billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. ALEC’s reach extends far beyond matters of public education. Model bills address topics as diverse as gun control, tort reform, abortion, voting rights, immigration and environmental regulation—always from a conservative standpoint. And Montana has seen its fair share of ALEC legislation, peddled exclusively by lawmakers on the right.
“To some degree, I don’t know whether ALEC found them or they found ALEC,” Feaver says. “This is a chicken-and-egg thing. But certainly they work with each other, they feed off each other and they promote a common agenda nationwide. Maybe it gets amended here and there to look more like the locale in which the bill is introduced, but it’s clearly a national movement, it’s well-funded and it’s dangerous.”
ALEC’s broad agenda isn’t implemented at the federal level. It’s done state-by-state, capital-by-capital, legislator-by-legislator, and it’s passed off as grassroots policy with ALEC’s name rarely entering the conversation. Knudsen’s desire to distance HB 315 from ALEC shouldn’t surprise anyone. These days, any hint of ALEC’s fingerprints can bring proposed legislation a whole new level of scrutiny.