Scott Walker, ALEC, and the future of the UW System…

On Tuesday, June 6 Scott Walker made a significant announcement in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin System. Walker and the UW System have unveiled an ambitious online degree program titled the “UW Flexible Degree Program.” The program will “…allow students to start classes anytime they like, work at their own pace, and earn credit for what they already know. Students can demonstrate college-level competencies – no matter where they learned the material – as soon as they can prove that they know it.” According to the Walker press kit, the end result will be more jobs, and more people with college degrees – at an affordable price:

“While many Wisconsin citizens are looking for work, many employers are struggling to find qualified workers with the specific knowledge and skills they need to fill tens of thousands of available positions.
To improve Wisconsin’s employment outlook, the University of Wisconsin System, Governor Scott Walker, and others have developed a plan to address these issues”.

Combining promises of accessibility, more bachelor’s degrees and jobs sounds too good to be true. It turns out this program will need careful monitoring and legislative oversight – largely because the “others” referred to in the above statement include an Education Foundation which sponsors and funds ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council. 

The media release from Walker’s office and UW reference several studies at the bottom of the online proposal. Four of the references link to the website of the Lumina Foundation and a recent study conducted by Lumina citing population college degree rates.  The data cited is old and incomplete; based on the 2008 US Census survey data, not the more complete and current 2010 US Census. The issue, however, is not with the data – it rests on the actions and agenda of the Lumina Foundation.

The Lumina Foundation came into existence as a result of the largest sell-off of student aid debt in US history. USA Group, Inc. was the largest holder of student loan guarantees, and sold its loan holdings to Sallie Mae in July of 2000 for $770 million. The overall transaction meant that USA Group started its new life as an Educational Private Foundation with assets of $1 Billion. To date, they are second only to the Gates Foundation in higher education awards – and the largest player in higher education policy reform in the nation. As of 2008, Lumina changed its focus away from direct awards to institutions and students; and towards pushing its policy agenda forward through state governments.

As of 2008 Lumina has had a close relationship with ALEC. The Foundation has been pushing policy nationwide to reach their goal of 60% degree attainment in the US by 2025. While this may sound like a lofty goal – the reality of this “attainment goal” has far-reaching (and not always positive) implications for the future of higher education in the US. Beginning in 2008, Lumina has given at least $300,000 per year to ALEC in the form of “Educational Grants” (see page 33 of the Lumina Form 990pf 2008).

In addition to the $300,000 per year in grant money, Lumina was a “Chairman” level sponsor of the 2011 Annual Conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council ($50,000 in 2010) and sponsor of the August 4th, 2011, Plenary Session speech of former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise of the Alliance for Excellent Education. 

In pushing its policy agenda, Lumina works with strategic partners nationwide. One of the largest and most active in working with Lumina is HCM Strategists in Washington, DC. According to the 2008 form 990pf linked above (Statement #24), Lumina granted HCM an award of $2,013,400 in 2008 alone. In addition to high level federal government experience under George W. Bush, one of the “Founding Partners” of HCM has links to Wisconsin.

Terrell Halaska was confirmed by the Senate in 2005 as assistant secretary of education for legislation and congressional affairs. Prior to that, Terrell served as deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As a member of Secretary Tommy Thompson’s senior strategic management team, she oversaw policy development on a number of issues. Previously, Terrell directed the state of Wisconsin’s Washington, D.C. office. She was the media manager for the nation’s governors at the National Governors Association and also served as press secretary to Congressman Scott Klug (R-WI).

HCM includes Wisconsin for voluntary participation in its “College Productivity Strategy Labs” program. The “College Productivity” project is a joint venture between Lumina and HCM. The focus on the program is based on an efficient, productive, results, and incentive-based education system designed to increase degree attainment; reducing higher education to a business model. HCM has been working on behalf of Lumina with UW and state officials for several years.

A policy staffer for HCM confirmed for Badger Democracy that the online degree program being adopted by the UW System is “the model of what we are working on nationwide. We didn’t work on this specific initiative, but we have been working with officials from Wisconsin on other initiatives, and we applaud the Governor and UW’s announcement.”

A UW spokesperson also confirmed that the UW System has been working with Lumina, and will continue to do so in the future. When asked if the University was aware of the relationship between Lumina and ALEC, the spokesperson stated, “no, I was not aware of that.”

Scott Walker would have been keenly aware of Lumina’s presence, vision, and influence. President/CEO Jamie Merisotis gave one of the key addresses at the annual Republican Governor’s Association Meeting in Salt Lake City, 2011 – which Scott Walker attended. In his speech, Merisotis laid out the plan to the new ultra-conservative governors, and how they could implement Lumina’s ALEC-backed policies:

“First, and perhaps most obviously, you occupy the bully pulpit in your state. More than anyone else, you have the power to direct the state policy apparatus and propose policy, budget, and tax agendas. Your central, visible position also enables you to mobilize and galvanize other political, civic and business leaders.

Second, governors usually appoint the leader of the state budget agency—a person with considerable influence, if not outright control, over higher education budgets.

Third, almost all of you appoint representatives to your state’s higher-ed coordinating agency, which in turn, typically chooses the higher education executive officer, or SHEEO, in your state.

Finally, most of you appoint trustees to the governing boards of state-supported colleges and universities. That gives you a singular opportunity—a chance to choose and encourage leaders who seek to benefit students and the state as a whole, not merely the institutions they serve.

So, that’s my first important message this afternoon: You, as a governor, can wield tremendous power in the reform effort.”

The ALEC and neo-con, corporatic agenda to create a crisis. Defund public education, even higher education, to necessitate systems such as the University of Wisconsin to adopt these “no other option” programs. Programs which have dubious results based on questionable  premises.

Badger Democracy will commit the next two posts to this issue. The second post will be a closer examination of Lumina and its policy agenda; and the premise that higher college degree attainment will increase employment.  The third will examine an academic study on the new role of “Modern Foundations in American Higher Education”, presented at the American Education Research Association meeting in Alberta, Canada in April.

The future of democracy relies on the quality of our higher education system; and the ability of that system to nurture thought, creativity, and deliberation. The activities of organizations such as Lumina Foundation require thorough vetting and public accountability, before their policy agenda is allowed to decide the future of public higher education.

Stay tuned for part the second.

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2 Comments

  1. Sandy Kennedy

     /  June 21, 2012

    So we say “goodbye” to public education and those who are fortunate enough to be able to afford” private schools” will be able to educate their kids and the rest will be SCREWED. Why am I not surprised, it was obvious to me a long time ago that Walkers agenda was to eliminate public schools!

    Reply
  2. Here is a paragraph from For-Profit Higher Education Growth, Innovation and Regulation, which is one of the citations from Walker’s UW Flexible Degree Program Brochure. The problem with the conclusion below, which comes from two professors of economics is that it doesn’t take into account any of the negative externalities that come from turning services into a commodity. If turning a service into a commodity were effective, all the exercise spas would have reduced obesity rates in this country just as it is assumed that more colleges with more options will create more intelligent and productive students. Did turning mortgages into a commodity improve the housing market and the real estate industry. No, it simply magnified the boom and bust cycle.
    [
    Ultimately, the concept of consumer sovereignty is just as applicable to education as it is to any other product. But this assertion also points to the resistance to such an argument: education viewed as a product. For many, classifying education as a product and a student as a customer elicits a negative response. Education is more than a “business,” it is a calling, an endeavor that enriches society and furthers the devel-opment of western civilization. However, the classification of colleges as businesses is highly defensible. The student will pay in one manner or another for the services of the college or university and further, they are the primary beneficiary of the education. This view of education as a product can explain the unprecedented growth of the for-profit education industry and perhaps partially silence some of the industry’s crit-ics. Economics would suggest that for-profits can only make a profit by providing educational services thatare in high demand. Those educational services would not likely be in high demand for long if they were of dubious quality or did little to increase a student’s employability. The track record of for-profit education is long enough at this point that if the industry were providing a product of little value, the customers would be aware of this and simply go away. They have not. Demand at for-profits is as strong as ever. If demand for a product is strong, the product must be providing something of value for the customer.

    Reply

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