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Why is State Farm Involved in Education Policy? Conservative Think Tank Exposes ALEC as Exchange of Dollars rather than Ideas
A press release from a conservative think tank criticizing the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) provides crucial insight into how the organization works -- and helps illustrate that while ALEC says its purpose is to facilitate an exchange of "practical, state-level public policy issues," it instead sells policy to the highest bidders. The release documents how the "exchange" that happens at ALEC is more like a stock exchange than a free marketplace of ideas.
The Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute issued a press release on November 29 criticizing ALEC for refusing to adopt a resolution opposing the federal K-12 educational curriculum standards known as "Common Core." The Pioneer Institute and others on the right oppose Common Core because they believe that creating national standards for math and English limits state control over the educational system. "The model law [opposing the standards] is in furtherance of preserving federalism, supposedly one of ALEC's founding principles," said Emmett McGroarty of American Principles Project, one of the model's sponsors and its original drafter.
But for ALEC, principles take a back seat to dollars, according to the Pioneer Institute. The internal ALEC dispute over the Common Core standards reveals how ALEC, which promotes "model" legislation for introduction across the country, operates as a pay-for-play rather than an exchange of ideas.
Pioneer describes how ALEC allows its deep-pocketed members to control the terms of the discussion and the ultimate outcome of the "model" bills that ALEC sets as priorities for its legislative members. The group details how ALEC structured a decision-making discussion about the Common Core standards, after most legislators said they were not familiar enough with the standards to endorse or oppose Common Core:
ALEC planned to host a debate on the topic at the December  meeting and at different times asked each side to come up with amounts between $25,000 and $40,000 to sponsor the debate.
According to the Pioneer Institute, the ALEC members who were Common Core opponents could not afford the sponsorship. But State Farm Insurance Company -- whose business has nothing to do with education -- paid tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor the ALEC debate on the Common Core standards. Why? According to Pioneer:
A top State Farm executive sits on the board of Achieve, Inc., one of Common Core's leading proponents and developer of one of the national tests.
Pioneer says that State Farm initially rejected the inclusion of two prominent Common Core opponents in the debate.
The group also claims that other Common Core supporters paid big to influence the discussion.
The lunch that preceded the debate was sponsored by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, a leading Common Core proponent.
As CMD has documented, the Foundation for Excellence in Education is funded by many of the same for-profit education companies that bankroll ALEC, but does not appear to receive funding from the ideological think tanks that are ALEC members and oppose Common Core.
The lunch's keynote speaker was Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, another prominent supporter. Bennett's speech included advocacy for Common Core.
And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which "alone has invested more than $100 million in developing and disseminating the standards," according to Pioneer, "gave ALEC $376,635 to support education public policy and advocacy efforts" in 2011. One of its advisors was also reportedly given access to the ALEC Board that Common Core opponents were denied.
In April, after controversy surrounding ALEC's role in promoting Stand Your Ground legislation, the Gates Foundation announced it would not renew its grant to ALEC. But the investment by Gates and other Common Core supporters apparently paid off. Though the ALEC Education Task Force approved a resolution in opposition to Common Core standards at two separate meetings, the ALEC Board of Directors refused to endorse it.
Such are the perils of ALEC's pay-to-play system of producing bills and setting the agenda to change the law.