Indebted Students Expose ALEC’s Assault on Higher Education

Rebecca Burns

Students rally outside Sallie Mae's annual shareholder meeting in Newark, Delaware on May 30, calling on the private lender to end its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) could hardly hope to hold its 40th annual conference in Chicago, a city on the brink of the largest mass school closings in U.S. history, without drawing fire for its role in pushing the privatization of K – 12 schools. Throngs of protesters from the Chicago Teachers Union and a host of other labor, community and environmental groups gathered Thursday to wish the pro-corporate bill mill a very unmerry birthday. Among them were student activists seeking to highlight a lesser-known facet of ALEC’s agenda: its deepening attack on higher education.

At least 139 bills or state budget measures reflecting ALEC’s education agenda have been introduced during the first six months of 2013, according to an analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy. Among the model bills propagated by ALEC are the Resolution in Support of Private-Sector Colleges and Universities,” which opposes regulation of for-profit colleges under the guise of ensuring equal access to all sectors of higher education,” and the College Opportunity Fund Act,” which subsidizes private colleges by providing vouchers to for-profit and religious institutions.

If these measures sound familiar, that’s because they are. For the past two decades, ALEC has helped gut the K – 12 education system by aggressively pushing voucher programs and blocking regulation of the private schools that vouchers subsidize. Now, as I’ve reported previously, ALEC and other corporate-backed reformers” have set their sights on higher education.

One of ALEC’s newest members, in fact, is student loan giant Sallie Mae, which holds more than $160 billion in student debt. Sallie Mae joined ALEC in 2012, just as the group was drawing fire for its role in promoting Stand Your Ground” laws, and dozens of other corporations cut their ties. 

Sallie Mae was created in 1972 as a government-sponsored entity, but it’s no mystery why the now-private lender would want to limit investment in public higher education. Sallie Mae and ALEC have a track record of pushing a legislative agenda that inextricably links higher education to a lifetime of debt – and a lifetime of customers for Sallie Mae. It’s time to shine a light on their relationship,” says Chris Hicks, student debt organizer for Jobs with Justice-American Rights at Work.

ALEC’s Education Task Force has also included the for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges and the Lumina Foundation, a grant-making institution created by the private loan industry. In 2009, ALEC’s Education Task Force approved a Resolution Calling for Greater Productivity in American Higher Education, which calls on states to recognize the value of for-profit providers,” among other items. Lumina has since awarded $9 million in grants to help states deliver higher education in new ways and at lower expense to students and taxpayers.” In Pennsylvania, this resulted in the discontinuation or suspension at state universities of 80 degree programs determined to have diminished future career relevance.”

In May, Hicks and other more than 200 other student activists crashed Sallie Mae’s annual shareholder meeting in Newark, Delaware to demand transparency in the lender’s loan modification and an end to its relationship with ALEC. Sallie Mae President and CEO Jack Remondi agreed to meet with students the following month, but rebuffed their demands.

We were taken aback by the indifference [Sallie Mae executives] showed to ALEC’s record of actively working against students and communities of color. … While other companies are leaving ALEC, Sallie Mae is proudly a member. I think that says a lot about their accountability to the community,” says Sara Fitouri, an activist who attended the June meeting. Fitouri is a recent graduate of Ithaca College and is more than $145,000 in debt.

At this week’s ALEC conference in Chicago, students tried again. Organizers with the Student Labor Action Project and the United States Students Association gathered nearly 14,000 signatures on a petition demanding that Sallie Mae end its membership in ALEC, and are awaiting a response.

Fitouri is also an organizer with the Colorado Student Power Alliance, which is working to build a statewide student union. Just as this week’s protests against ALEC united a range of labor and civil rights groups, she says that such an organization will lack the teeth to take on lenders like Sallie Mae until it succeeds in building a broad coalition. We see people fighting foreclosure in our communities, college students and recent graduates fighting debt, and K-12 organizers resisting high stakes testing and the school-to-prison pipeline. We realize our success is all tied together,” she says. We help each other win because it is the same fight.”

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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