ALEC in cahoots with accrediting commission?

Illustration by Serina Mercado
Illustration by Serina Mercado

By J.B. Evans

The Guardsman

In light of City College’s accreditation crisis, college advocates have questioned whether the regional agency responsible for terminating the school’s accreditation has connections to a controversial think tank known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The council represents a group of legislators and corporate leaders who draft model policies that lawmakers may then use as templates to write bills in their home states.

“Philosophically, it’s clear that ALEC is in alignment with the effort by the ACCJC (Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges) to disaccredit the college,” Fred Glass, communications director of the California Federation of Teachers said. “The potential to then have private education replace public institutions would be right up ALEC’s alley.”

Allegations

In California, advocates allege many of these model policies favor private for-profit educational institutions to the detriment of public higher education.

These advocates also suspect that the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, the agency in charge of evaluating City College’s accreditation, has been using ALEC model-policy language to assess one of the key criteria areas, student learning outcomes.

The phrase student learning outcomes appears many times in the accrediting commission’s Accreditation Standards, which sets forth demands that City College must adopt in order to avoid losing accreditation. That same phrase also shows up frequently in an ALEC model policy called the Collegiate Learning Assessment Act.

When asked for clarification on how it views student learning outcomes the accrediting commission referred to a May conference in which representatives from sixteen colleges met to discuss an assessment marker known as the Degree Qualification Profile.

“The conference served as the culmination of college projects related degree-level student learning outcomes…that were conducted in 2013 and 2014 using the Degree Qualifications Profile,” according to the commission’s summer newsletter.

According to Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges President Barbara Beno, the commission is using the Degree Qualification Profile “to help colleges evaluate degree-level student learning outcomes for increasing student achievement.”

The Degree Qualification Profile was designed and disseminated by a private funding group known as the Lumina Foundation. Outside of adopting Lumina’s student-assessment standards, from 2012 to 2015 the ACCJC is set to receive $450,000 from Lumina “to explore the use of the Degree Qualifications Profile.”

Lumina’s Billions

Lumina also enjoys a $1.3 billion endowment, and to whom Lumina gives its money besides the accrediting has raised eyebrows among City College supporters.

“ALEC and Lumina seem joined at the hip,” said Madeline Mueller, head of the music department. “I expect daily that their connection will become clearer and clearer.”

From 2008 to 2010, according to the grants page on Lumina’s website, Lumina donated $300,000 to ALEC for the creation of a “development and communication program to educate state lawmakers about higher education topics.”

ALEC could not be reached for comment on either the “Collegiate Learning Assessment Act” or to clarify what it has done with its Lumina donation. Likewise, the activities of ALEC’s membership occur behind closed doors.

“ALEC is still in the process of being exposed as a secret society,” said Mueller. “It’s very hard to shine a light on ALEC. That’s what makes them so troubling and what makes them so powerful.”

ALEC boasts a long membership list that includes hundreds of high-ranking politicians and high-profile corporations, such as AT&T, ExxonMobil, State Farm and the Koch Brothers.

Media outlets have recently reported an exodus of ALEC-member companies that include Google, whose chairman stated that joining ALEC was “a mistake.”

Observers have also noted that bad press may have pushed some companies to reconsider their membership, especially following the revelation of how one ALEC model policy served as the basis for Florida’s Stand Your Ground gun law that was invoked during the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.

‘Model Politics’

Public educators have long worried that “model policies” devised by ALEC’s Student Education Task Force could strengthen private for-profit schools that stand to gain increased enrollment should institutions like City College be forced to close.

Several ALEC “model policies,” such as the “Resolution in Support of Private Sector Colleges and Universities” and the “Indiana Education Reform Package” introduce language to benefit charter schools and private-sector colleges.

“They want to do a corporate overhaul,” Allan Fisher, a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 and an ESL teacher at City College said. “Believing in the business model of education, they want to change City College. And, maybe, teach City College a lesson because we have been at the forefront of democratic education for all.”

Regardless of whether or not ALEC has any substantive connection to the ACCJC through “student learning outcomes,” many advocates believe that the Accreditation Standards cited by the ACCJC do not provide a fair assessment of City College’s student performance.

“There’s nothing in state law that says every teacher and every department must have identifiable and measurable student learning outcomes,” said Fisher. “But the ACCJC has made it part of their standards. And they say that you must abide by their standards or they will sanction you.”

In 2013, the ACCJC sanctioned City College to show cause that the school has adopted reforms to meet a set of Accreditation Standards or risk losing accreditation. Many critics have described the accrediting commission as a rogue group operating beyond the oversight of its parent regional agency, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

“Our situation is so egregious, so out of the blue,” said Mueller. “It has focused people’s attention on the fact that we are being treated criminally by the ACCJC.”

Observers have pointed to the Student Success Scorecard, an online accountability database run by the State Chancellor’s Office, as the most likely gauge of student learning outcomes for California community colleges.

In April, Chancellor Arthur Tyler published a memo on new Scorecard data that showed how City College “did better than the statewide average in 10 of the 13 top metrics” for Scorecard evaluations.

The data also noted that City College achieved an overall completion rate well above the statewide average.

Although the Scorecard seems to contradict the commission’s verdict that City College’s students are underperforming, the college’s vanguard doubts that the accrediting commission will back down as the case goes through appeals processes.

“We’re wounded right now,” said Mueller, who has taught at the school since 1965. “If we get messed up badly, then that is worrisome. There is no similar institution on the face of the earth than this college in this town in this state.”

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