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WAKE UP! Koch Brothers Set Sights on “Government Schools”

January 31, 2018

One of Diane Ravitch’s posts yesterday was headlined “BREAKING NEWS: Koch Brothers Declare War on Public Education“. The article had the extensive series of quotes taken from a Washington Post article by James Hohman that are outlined below. My reactions to the various points in the article are highlighted in bold red italics.

“Making a long-term play, the billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and his like-minded friends on the right are increasingly focused on melding the minds of the next generation by making massive, targeted investments in both K-12 and higher education.

“Changing the education system as we know it was a central focus of a three-day donor seminar that wrapped up late last night at a resort here in the desert outside Palm Springs.

We’ve made more progress in the last five years than I had in the last 50,” Koch told donors during a cocktail reception. “The capabilities we have now can take us to a whole new level. … We want to increase the effectiveness of the network … by an order of magnitude. If we do that, we can change the trajectory of the country.”  I fear that the data will back up the Koch brothers on this. While most Americans do not like the idea of vouchers in general, they seem willing to swallow the incremental laws that lead down the road to vouchers, like laws creating Education Savings Accounts, without any pushback. 

“Leaders of the network dreamed of disrupting the status quo, customizing learning and breaking the teacher unions. One initial priority is expanding educational saving accounts and developing technologies that would let parents pick and choose private classes or tutors for their kids the same way people shop on Amazon. They envision making it easy for families to join together to start their own “micro-schools” as a new alternative to the public system. As I wrote in 2002 for an article in Education Week, hybrid home-schools in California looked like the wave of the future. Public schools could still get in front of this and control these “micro-schools” by focussing on the need for uniformity in graduation standards and assurances that all “micro-schools” are convened in safe spaces overseen by qualified teachers. If public schools do not find a way to work with homeschoolers who are not motivated by religion “chains” will capture this potentially emerging market. 

“The Charles Koch Institute distributed roughly $100 million to 350 colleges and universities last year, up sevenfold over the past five years. What’s newer is the emphasis on elementary and secondary education. The network declined to offer exact figures but said it will double investment in K-12 this year, with much more planned down the road. This “investment” in all probability takes the form of political donations to state legislators, campaign contributions to referenda and/or political candidates who hold anti-government libertarian views, and possibly dark money behind charter schools. One thing IS certain: the public will never be able to trace most of the “investment”. 

“There are about 700 people who each contribute a minimum of $100,000 per year to the constellation of organizations that comprise the Koch network. For years, many of these megadonors have urged Koch to wade into the battles over what they call school choice. Charles resisted, believing that his network had no special comparative advantage to move the needle in this area. WHAT??!!! 700 x $100,000 = $70 million dollars. That’s more than twice the $32 million the AFT and NEA gave to campaigns in 2016! 

“Then he commissioned Meredith Olson, a vice president at Koch Industries, to interview members of his network about what they are doing in their home states to explore whether there is a way to scale their education efforts nationally. She developed a three-prong strategy: “reform, supplement, innovate.”

“The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12,” said Stacy Hock, a major Koch donor who has co-founded a group called Texans for Educational Opportunity. “I think this is the area that is most glaringly obvious.” Low hanging fruit” because, in most cases, the general public ignores local school board races and state legislature races.. and that’s where policy changes occur in K-12. The most disturbing trend in the past few years is the increased spending in local school board races. It began with races in large urban districts but is now trickling down to smaller districts. If Koch’s band of donors decides to focus their attention on public schools, there is no telling how quickly they can control the direction of public schools.  

“In 2018, Koch donors see Arizona as ground zero in their push. Doug Ducey, the former chief executive of Cold Stone Creamery, became a member of the Koch network in 2011. Since 2015, he’s attended the seminars as governor of Arizona. Last year, he signed legislation to dramatically expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program so that students can use taxpayer dollars that would be spent on them in public schools to cover private-school tuition or other educational expenses.

“Teacher unions, worried that this will undermine the public system, collected enough signatures to put the law on hold and create a ballot proposition to let voters decide in November whether to expand vouchers. [Note: Signatures for the referendum were collected by parents and SOS Arizona, not teachers unions.] The fact that Diane Ravitch needed to add this note is indicative of the tendency for reporters to take the information from groups like the Koch brothers at face value and to cast the battle lines as “union vs. the public” instead of “the public vs. the plutocracy”. As noted above, the donations from 700 billionaires far exceeded the donations from 4.6 million members of the AFT and NEA. Every time the “union vs. the public” narrative is repeated, the public comes away with the impression that “the union” is a monolithic power with lots of money and the “the public” is a scattered group of penurious home owners. 

“Addressing the seminar yesterday, Ducey touted the measure as further reaching than anything that’s been tried in other states. He warned that, under Arizona law, if advocates lose at the ballot box, they will not be able to legislate on the topic in the future. “This is a very real fight in my state,” Ducey said. “I didn’t run for governor to play small ball. I think this is an important idea.”

“The Koch network is likely to spend heavily to support the voucher law, setting up a battle royal with the labor movement. And the Koch’s are certain to cast “the union” as Goliath and the parents seeking alternatives in the form of “choice” as David. The battle is between plutocrats and democracy. 

“Ducey introduced Steve Perry, the headmaster of Capital Prep Charter Schools, who has been traveling Arizona to speak in support of the law. “The teacher unions are unencumbered by the truth,” he told the Koch donors. “It is a distant relative that is never invited to dinner.”

“Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, highlighted field operations that the network has built in 36 states to advance its agenda, including on education. “We have more grass-roots members in Wisconsin than the Wisconsin teachers’ union has members,” he said. “That’s how you change a state!”” My hunch is that the “grass-roots members” are folks who signed up to receive emails from the Koch brothers propaganda machine, a machine that casts “government schools” who “kowtow to unions” as the villain and the marketplace as the magical means of offering freedom. The “government school” brand has stuck with voters who watch Fox News and listen to Betsy DeVos and those “reformers” in BOTH political parties who value “school choice”. If “the unions” and those of us who treasure public education are to win, we need to emphasize that in a democracy the voters are the government… and the marketplace doesn’t care a whit about the voters— they only care about shareholders. 


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