Who makes public policy?

Lawmakers pass laws. Lobbyists influence lawmakers and therefore the laws. But who writes the laws? And most importantly, who decides on the public policy that shapes the laws? That’s the part of government that we don’t usually see. Luckily, it’s easy to find, if you know where to look.

The private sector creates public policy. This includes for-profit corporations, nonprofits, billionaire philanthropists, and think tanks. One well-known example of the private sector creating policy is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – read more about them here.

ALEC does their work in secret, but many organizations do the same thing out in the open. I found this out when I started learning about corporate education reform, which mostly means creating opportunities for the private sector to take public education dollars and use them to “improve” public education and control what is taught to our kids. For the public to swallow this, I learned, it took quite a bit of propaganda. Being a curious person, I researched and wrote a post on the think tanks that create the propaganda.

As it turns out, these same think tanks are holding policy discussions on topics that affect us, and our children, quite intimately. Seattle Public Schools, along with thousands of schools across the nation, is about to administer a suite of tests called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. These tests are meant to measure student mastery of the Common Core, a set of education standards that was designed and promoted by the private sector — specifically, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), two nonprofits. These standards are copyrighted by the NGA and the CCSSO, meaning that any modifications to the standards are completely out of the control of the public.

Let’s go back to the think tanks for a minute. One of the think tankers I mentioned in my blog post on think tankers is named Rick Hess, or Frederick Hess. He’s a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which was founded in 1943 by a combination of thinkers, business leaders, and finance leaders. It has drawn fire over the years for spreading propaganda for the tobacco industry and for bribing scientists to disseminate information that undermined legitimate research on global warming. Not a poster child for the public good.

Hess, to my surprise, came out with criticism of the Common Core. Curious as always, I poked around a bit and found that the AEI had hosted a symposium with the topic “Common Core Meets the Reform Agenda.” It asked the question: “Going forward, will the Common Core initiative complement or conflict with the school reform agendas that states are currently pursuing?” That question was tackled by people who influence policy in one way or another (see participant bios).

The papers show a debate over various corporate reform policies such as high-stakes testing, charter schools, and the Common Core. For example, here is a policy recommendation from the article “The Common Core Standards and Teacher Quality Reforms” by Morgan Polikoff.

(A quick note: There is a note on this article claiming it is a draft and asking people not to cite it. That’s silly. Since it’s online, it is published, and citations fall under fair use guidelines.)

“Because these changes are happening simultaneously, both reforms might be more faithfully applied if there were a moratorium on making high stakes decisions about teachers (e.g., hiring, firing, tenure) until after the Common Core and its assessments are fully implemented.”

So the recommendation is to implement Common Core and assessments, and then work on legislation to use those assessments to make high-stakes decisions about teachers.

That conversation ought to have occurred in the public eye and with the involvement of the public, especially the parents, teachers, and students this recommended policy will impact.

It didn’t. That’s not how our government works.

But seeing what’s going on behind the scenes does give us the ability to stop it. Knowing about ALEC, for instance, has helped us oppose dangerous laws before they are passed.

Knowledge is power.

Knowledge is Power!

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