Home > Uncategorized > ESSA Creates Opportunity for ESAs and Koch Brothers Network is Ready to Seize the Opportunity

ESSA Creates Opportunity for ESAs and Koch Brothers Network is Ready to Seize the Opportunity

July 11, 2017

Over the past eight years, Congress reached a bi-partisan agreement that NCLB and its progeny, RTTT were unmitigated disasters. While the basis for this agreement differed from State-to-State, there was an underlying consensus that both RTTT and NCLB took power away from the states and placed too much power at the federal level. The solution to this was ESSA, which returned decision making authority for accountability to the states. As noted in several earlier blog posts, since the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos to head USDOE, the federal influence on education has declined markedly thanks to Ms. DeVos’ efforts to repeal regulations on an array of fronts including civil rights, gender equity, and desegregation.

But a more chilling development associated with ESSA was reported earlier this week in an article written by John Frank for the Denver Post: the Koch brothers intend to use Colorado as a testing ground for school choice and vouchers by diverting public funds to Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), thereby de-funding public education. His report on an annual meeting of the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity Foundation described the strategy:

The effort in Colorado involves the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Libre Initiative, a group focused on Hispanic community outreach. Together the organizations are making calls and sending flyers to voters this summer, two of which promote ESAs as a way to “give families the freedom to select schools, classes and services that fit the unique needs of their kids.”

…The summertime effort in a nonelection year demonstrates the Koch network’s permanent apparatus in Colorado and how it can mobilize like-minded volunteers into action.

“When there’s not an election, there’s not a lot of noise and you can have a lot of impact,” said Michael Fields, the senior director for issue education at the national Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

The ESA model is relatively novel in Colorado, and Fields sees his team’s work as a “race to who defines the issue first.”

If the persuasion effort is successful in Colorado, the Koch network’s political groups could push it forward as soon as the 2018 legislative session or possibly onto the ballot for voter approval.

Fields is optimistic: “I think we can get something across in the next few years.”

Stripped of its anti-Government libertarian philosophical basis, ESAs would be an easy sell for the “middle-of-the-road” voters in Colorado, a state the Koch Brothers began grooming a few years ago when they helped underwrite the bi-artisan effort in that state that resulted in legislation that provides equal state funding for charter schools. Framed as an opportunity for parents to “select the schools their children can attend”, using funds drawn from donations made in lieu of taxes to a state-wide savings account it is hard to elicit a negative response. If the Koch Brothers are making calls to elicit support from middle-of-the-road” voters, here’s the pitch they can make:

  • If the “middle-of-the-road” voter has children in school and is happy, tell the voter that ESA legislation would allow their child to remain in that school and they would pay lower State taxes.
  • If the “middle-of-the-road” voter has children in school and is unhappy, ESA legislation would offer them a chance to send their child to a different school that meets their needs…. even if that school was affiliated with a church or was an on-line school.
  • If the “middle-of-the-road” voter has no children in school, promote the notion that parent-consumers can “choose the school for their child”… and emphasize that ESA legislation will result in a reduction in their taxes.
  • If the “middle-of-the-road” voter sends their child to a religiously affiliated school note that ESA legislation will substantially defray their tuition costs and reduce their taxes.
  • If the “middle-of-the-road” voter either attends a church that offers schooling for children who desire religious training, note that ESA legislation will help support their church’s efforts.

The advocates for ESAs have an easy sell. Those who support public education, on the other hand, cannot assure more choices for parents or lower taxes. The need to appeal to more abstract notions like “fairness” and “equal opportunities” for all and need to counter the negative arguments that disaffected and resentful voters will voice, arguments like:

  • The only people who support public schools are the unions
  • The money for public education goes to teachers who have better wages and benefits than I do
  • We’ve spent millions of dollars for schools and they haven’t improved a bit
  • When my kids went to school we didn’t have all these fancy programs and social services. Why should I pay higher taxes for these frills?
  • I already pay tuition for my children to go to a private school that has Christian values, why should I pay higher taxes for a school that promotes secular humanism?

The list could go on and will be expanded and amplified as the pro-ESA messages from the Koch Brothers permeate the airwaves and phone lines in the months ahead.

The problem for those of us who support public education is journalists like Mr. Frank and news outlets like the Denver Post are framing the debate as one between unions (which are implicitly “self-serving”) and “reformers”, who are seeking the best solutions for parents and children. The astro-turf organizations funded by billionaires will issue white papers and organize and populate rallies in support of ESAs while those who oppose them will be left on the sidelines. And since school choice is now a bi-partisan issue, the lonely voices in the wilderness don’t even have a political party to advocate for economic justice. Someone who is not a union member needs to compete in the “race to who defines the issue first” in the words of Michael Fields, the senior director for issue education at the national Americans for Prosperity Foundation. In my way of thinking, we need to assert the high-minded purpose of public schooling. Here’s a 15 minute effort to define the over-arching purpose of public education, a purpose that ESAs undercuts:

  • Every child is entitled to a high quality education. Since ESAs only provide partial funding for schooling parents are expected to supplement the costs for their children who do not attend public schools. This means that parents with lower incomes will not have the same choices or same opportunities as more affluent parents.
  • In order for democracy to thrive, all students need to attend high quality schools where the values of the community, state, and nation are taught. ESAs fragment the community of learners and will reinforce the divisiveness that is poisoning discourse in our democracy today.
  • Locally elected school boards, not individual “consumers”, should set the priorities for how your school funds are spent and what values are inculcated in the schools. ESAs will undercut the power of local democracy.

These arguments are harder to sell than “choice” and “lower taxes”. But if we cannot get agreement on these issue, it will be difficult to sustain our democratic form of government in the future.


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