I’d be inclined to cut the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation some slack over its controversial $376,635 grant to the American Legislative Exchange Conference. But it’s hard, when the foundation spokesman keeps making comments that suggest the foundation has no idea what ALEC is, or does.
ALEC is an organization of conservative state legislators and their corporate supporters, which develops “model bills” that the legislators take back home and try to pass into law. Indiana’s school voucher law is an example.
Recently ALEC has come in for heavy criticism over its support of “stand your ground” laws like the Florida statute that almost let Trayvon Martin’s killer off the hook; and voter identification laws that seem designed to suppress voting by groups that are likely to vote Democratic. Businesses such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods and Wendy’s have cut their ties with ALEC in response to protests from Color of Change and other organizations.
The Gates Foundation awarded the grant late last year, saying it would go to educating ALEC’s members on teacher effectiveness and education funding.
When the grant was criticized, foundation press secretary Chris Williams posted a defense on the Gates Foundation blog, Impatient Optimists, explaining that the foundation uses its grants to engage with all sorts of organizations, including ones whose agendas it doesn’t share.
The explanation sounded reasonable, except for this statement: “Our grant to them does not indicate support for its entire agenda. We have made similar grants to the National Conference of State Legislators, a membership organization mostly composed of progressive state lawmakers …”
Well, that’s simply wrong. The National Conference of State Legislators is not mostly composed of progressive lawmakers. It is made up of all state legislators, whether liberal, conservative, moderate or whatever. They are members by virtue of holding state office. This information is right there on the organization’s website. The executive committee members from Indiana are Rep. Eric Turner of Marion, a very conservative Republican; and Rep. Peggy Welch of Bloomington, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.
When the Trayvon Martin business hit the fan, the Gates Foundation announced that the 2011 grant would be its last to ALEC. But Williams posted that it’s not true, as some media reported, that the foundation is withdrawing its support for ALEC. The grant that it awarded will play out.
Responding to comments on the blog, Williams wrote: “We have worked with other state office holder member organizations as well, including the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State School Officers and the National Governors Association.”
Again, ALEC isn’t just another office holder organization like the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State School Officers and the National Governors Association. It’s a strongly ideological organization that includes elected officials who share a partisan agenda.
In an era when many super-rich people use their money to advocate for low taxes and less regulation, it’s certainly commendable that the Bill and Melinda Gates are spending billions on things that matter – global health and development and, yes, trying to create more effective schools.
And while many critics scoff at the idea that the Gates Foundation could “educate” ALEC, some of the organization’s individual members certainly aren’t incapable of hearing the foundation’s generally centrist, technocratic message. ALEC’s Indiana leaders – national chairman David Frizzell of Indianapolis and state co-chairs Jim Buck of Kokomo and David Wolkins of Winona Lake – are conservative Republicans, sure, but they are probably no more close-minded than most people.
But as any journalist can tell you, credibility depends to a great extent on accuracy. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for the Gates Foundation spokesman to get his facts straight when talking about a highly visible grant. Even if it’s only $376,635.