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Public Schools

Public school advocates protest an April 25, 2017 visit by then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to Ashland Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia. (Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Koch Network Infiltration of Public Schools 'Harms Students, Teachers, and Our Democracy': Report

"In their assault on public education, the network has taken actions to increasingly privatize and corporatize K-12 institutions."

Brett Wilkins

A new report published Wednesday reveals how the Koch network—a shadowy group of wealthy capitalists acting to push the U.S. in a more conservative direction—is methodically working to undermine and privatize public education for financial gain.

"The Koch network has financed local, state, and national mechanisms to create multiple crises, only to turn around and cite these same crises as reasons to adopt their free market solutions."
—UnKoch My Campus

The report (pdf), entitled The Koch Network and the Capture of K-12 Education, was compiled by the advocacy groups UnKoch My Campus and Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ) and examines tactics employed by the plutocrats' cabal—which is led by billionaire Charles Koch, and whose members pay at least $100,000 per year—"to destabilize and abolish public education."

"In order to influence K-12 public education, the Koch network has financed local, state, and national mechanisms to create multiple crises, only to turn around and cite these same crises as reasons to adopt their free market solutions," according to UnKoch My Campus.

"The Koch network has made no secret about the critical role that public education plays as an ideal arena for influencing U.S. policy and culture," the group says in an introduction to the report. "Through a variety of tactics—charter schools, vouchers, curriculum, textbooks, trainings, using state politicians to engage in culture war against progressive ideas, and more—the Koch network is able to ensure the spread of their ideas, including climate disinformation and free market-favoring economics philosophy."

According to the report, the Koch network's tactics include:

  • Supporting the seating of state legislators who intentionally defund public education;
  • Destabilizing state funding in schools to promote policies that divert funds away from traditional public schools to charter schools, private schools, and online education under the guise of "school choice"; 
  • Funding higher education centers that create the curriculum and textbooks being used in some K-12 programs; and
  • Astroturfing moral panic about ideologies that critique their idea production and theory of change as regressive and racist (Critical Race Theory, or CRT).

"At the moment, there is a coordinated effort in states across the country to pass bills attempting to ban the teaching of CRT in public schools," the report notes. "The Koch-funded Heritage Foundation is leading the push... Both the Heritage Foundation and another Koch-funded organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have held webinars in opposition to the teaching of CRT. ALEC has frequently produced model bills for various right-wing causes, causing concern over their involvement when it comes to anti-CRT state bills."

The report examines Arizona as a case study that "shows exactly what happens when all of these factors fall into place" in a state where "the Koch network's efforts to dismantle public schools have made a significant impact."

Arizona, the report says, "has nearly the lowest per-pupil spending, one of the lowest averages for teacher's pay, and some of the largest class sizes" in the U.S., on average. More than one in six Arizona students are enrolled in charter schools, the Koch-funded Freedom Center "has played a large role in influencing public education in the state," and under a budget signed into law last month by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, schools face fines up to $5,000 and teachers can lose their licenses for "teaching that students' race, ethnicity, or sex determines their character."

"All public institutions are a threat to the Koch network's free market economic agenda," the report states. "In their assault on public education, the network has taken actions to increasingly privatize and corporatize K-12 institutions."

"In doing so, they've created a lot of waste, pushed to close 'failing' schools, favored CEO-like superintendents, aggressively cut costs, and more," the report continues. "Lack of public accountability and transparency surrounding private and charter schools, as well as privately created curriculum and textbooks, leaves little room for parents and educators to take action against undesired and harmful agendas."

"All public institutions are a threat to the Koch network's free market economic agenda."

The report notes that one Koch network affiliate, former Trump-era Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, "has contributed at least $200 million to conservative organizations, including many within the Koch network, since the 1970s."

The report states that while she was education secretary, DeVos "allocated $399 million in federal grant money toward the expansion of charter schools nationwide," adding that most of her efforts, "such as her attempt to allocate $400 million of the national budget toward charter schools in 2018 or her proposed $5 billion voucher program, were unsuccessful."

"According to a study by Urban Institute, growth in charter school enrollment increases the segregation of Black, Hispanic, and white students," the report adds. "One analysis found that 70% of Black charter school students attended a heavily segregated minority charter school, double the percentage of Black students attending schools in the public sector. The UCLA Civil Rights Project found similarly egregious statistics surrounding charter school treatment of students with disabilities."

Christopher Leonard, author of the book Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America, discussed what he said is Koch's education reform policy in a 2019 episode of Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider's "Have You Heard" podcast:

Here's the actual political philosophy: Government is bad. Public education must be destroyed for the good of all American citizens, in this view. So the ultimate goal is to dismantle the public education system entirely and replace it with a privately run education system, which the operatives in this group believe in a sincere way is better for everybody.

Now, whether you agree with that or not is the big question, but we cannot have any doubt, there's going to be a lot of glossy marketing materials about opportunity, innovation, efficiency. At its core, though, the network seeks to dismantle the public education system because they see it as destructive. So that is what's the actual aim of this group. And don't let them tell you anything different.

"The Kochs' infiltration of K-12 education harms students, teachers, and our democracy," the new report asserts. "Students are losing access to quality public school education. Teachers are losing access to resources and the support needed to create a healthy, generative public-school ecosystem."

"Finally," the report concludes, "our democracy is harmed as students are taught with Koch-funded curriculum that promotes regressive and ahistorical ideologies that contribute to myths of meritocracy, normalizes extractive economic practices which disregard our climate, and justify historical structural violence."

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