Al Melvin’s “special interest” education company: the ALEC/Goldwater Institute/Jeb Bush connection


by David Safier

6a00d8341bf80c53ef017c36c8ccde970b-800wiThanks to a heads up from blogger Craig McDermott and astute commenting by BfA readers, we have established beyond a reasonable doubt that Al Melvin wrote SB1239 to create a state contract worth up to $30 million for Imagine Learning, a reading software company based in Utah. (By the way, this company is in no way connected to Imagine charter schools which I write about frequently.) The last shred of doubt is dispelled when we look at Melvin’s frequent mention of Imagine Learning on the 2012 campaign trail. An example: in an October debate aired on Arizona Public Media, Melvin said:

“There’s a company up in Utah by the name of Imagine Learning and they’ve had phenomenal success with third graders getting them up to speed in English.”

Melvin’s bill is the equivalent of a no-bid contract since no other company would fit the criteria specified in the language. I’ve been told that legislation written to benefit one person or business is unconstitutional, but it’s perfectly OK for Melvin to present it — even for the lege to vote for it and Brewer to sign it into law. If it became law, its constitutionality could be brought into question.

There’s a reason why Melvin might feel a special affinity for this company reagardless of the effectiveness of its product. Its conservative credentials are impeccable.

6a00d8341bf80c53ef017d40f6d744970c-250wiLet’s begin with ALEC. Imagine Learning is an ALEC member at the second highest funding level. The top “Presidential” level is occupied by two companies: Reynolds (tobacco) and the State Policy Network (SPN), which is a conglomeration of astroturf groups funded by the Koch Brothers, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Insurance and others. Next is the “Chairman” level that Imagine Learning shares with some of the “Big” groups mentioned above along with Big Telecomm and Big Credit. Imagine Learning also sits on ALEC’s Education Task Force.

In July, 2012, ALEC held its annual conference in Salt Lake City. Imagine Learning was part of the “host committee” for the event, and it participated in one of the conference sessions:

In one session, Imagine Learning, a Provo-based company that makes educational software that Utah schools have bought to help non-English speakers, boasted of the success of its software in teaching special-needs students.

A few months earlier, in May, 2012, ALEC’s Education Task Force met. Goldwater Institute’s Jonathan Butcher was both a presenter and the sponsor of Model Legislation at the meeting. (Arizona Senator Rich Crandall sponsored a Model Bill as well, about “Online Course Choice for Students,” which would certainly appeal to an online education company like Imagine Learning, though Crandall’s Model Bill is targeted at grades 7-12 rather than at grades K-3 which are Imagine Learning’s specialty.)

Jonathan Butcher is the current Education Director at the Goldwater Institute, replacing Matthew Ladner who has moved on to work with Jeb Bush at his Foundation for Excellence in Education (Bush, by the way, has had a close association with the Goldwater Institute through Matthew Ladner for years). I mention the G.I./Ladner/Bush connections because of a Parents for Choice in Education symposium held in Salt Lake City in December, 2012. At that symposium of conservative “education reformers,” Imagine Learning was given an Innovation in Education award. One of the two featured speakers at the gathering was Matthew Ladner. The other was Jay P. Greene, the head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute and the proprietor of Jay P. Greene’s Blog, where Matthew Ladner is a frequent contributor.

Imagine Learning travels in the right conservative circles to appeal to Al Melvin. Company representatives most likely have had ample opportunity to sell Melvin on their products and their conservative education credentials — not only Melvin, but Crandall and other Arizona Republican legislators who are ALEC members, meaning most of them.

In another post, I’ll look at ways Imagine Learning sold itself to Utah legislators and received a lucrative statewide license from the state, just what Melvin is calling for in his bill.