Despite his campaign promises to transform American education, President Donald Trump had almost nothing to say about the subject in his first State of the Union speech, and his controversial education secretary Betsy DeVos has not made national headlines for some time. But that doesn't mean Republicans are pausing their assault on the nation's public schools.
As James Hohmann of the Washington Post reports, GOP fat cats who make up the powerful donor network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch recently met in California and declared their intention to "fundamentally transform America’s education system," including the K-12 sector.
“The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12,” said one of the attendees, a wealthy Texan who co-founded Texans for Educational Opportunity, a lobbying group behind the effort in the Lone Star State to create vouchers that let parents use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private or religious schools. “I think [K-12] is the area that is most glaringly obvious.”
"The vast network has pledged to devote around $400 million" to influencing political campaigns in the upcoming November elections, reports Annie Linskey of the Boston Globe, who also dropped in on the affair. "That’s 60 percent more than the network spent in 2014, when Republicans picked up nine seats in the Senate and 13 seats in the House of Representatives."
A "major focus" for those pledging these staggering sums, according to Linskey: referendums and new state laws "to remake the nation’s education system."
The revelation of a huge, influential network of wealthy conservatives determined to remake public schools into their own vision should not surprise anyone who has been paying attention. Leading scholars of the conservative movement have been warning for years that radical factions in the Republican party have made public schools one of their top targets, a progressive plum at least as important, if not more so, as Medicare and Social Security.
What's not certain though is whether Democrats will recognize the onslaught and rise to the challenge of defending public schools and public school educators.
What the Right Wing Wants
Participants at the Koch Network gathering spoke of "disrupting the status quo" in education in order to remake the system around policies that enable more of what they call "choice."
"The Kochs are particularly enthusiastic about education savings accounts," Linskey writes, "a mechanism that upends traditional K-12 education by, in some cases, giving parents lump sums they can use to pay private schools or even online institutions to educate their children."
Currently, five states allow for Education Savings Accounts: Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Arizona, and Tennessee. But legislation to create new ESA programs is pending in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Missouri, Iowa, Texas, Georgia, and elsewhere.
The programs vary somewhat from state to state, but generally the programs allow qualifying parents who withdraw their children from public schools to get a proportion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children deposited into an account. The accounts come with debit cards families can use to pay for education products and services such as private schools, home schooling, online courses, private lessons and therapists, and tutoring services.
The programs tend to pose significant risks to parents, as states release funds to parents in exchange for the parents agreeing to forego their right to a public education.
Advocates for these programs often begin by targeting ESAs to disadvantaged student groups, such as those from low-income households or those with special needs. But then, invariably, ESA proponents want to expand the program to entice other families to leave the public school system.
Participants at the Koch Network gathering, Hohmann reports, spoke of ESAs being instrumental in redirecting public school funding to an array of privately-controlled alternatives to public schools, including "technologies" that let parents pick and choose private classes or tutors, teacher-less computer based instructional programs often called "personalized" or "customized" learning, and “micro-schools" that substitute computer software platforms for the traditional shared-space of a public school led by professional educators.
ESAs further the conservative cause to transform collectivist endeavors, like public education, into consumer enterprises that give the wealthy the upper hand in maintaining their privileges. The amount of money ESAs provide per student rarely covers the full cost of tuition, fees, uniforms, books, transportation, and other expenses at private and religious schools.
During one session at the Koch Network meeting, the audience was harangued by Doug Ducey, a Koch acolyte and former chief executive of Cold Stone Creamery who now serves as governor of Arizona. Ducey offered his state as a model for how to remake public schools.
Last year, Arizona enacted a universal, statewide ESA program that is now being threatened by a citizen-led repeal effort, which voters will decide in November. The Koch Brothers, through their Americans for Prosperity and Libre Initiative organizations, have already spent millions to derail the recall effort in the public forum and in the state courts. A Superior Court Judge recently tossed out their effort to stop the referendum, so now the Koch Network is drumming up more money to defeat the recall at the ballot box.
In his reporting of the discussion, Hohmann incorrectly cites "teacher unions" as the leaders in the decidedly broad-based effort to collect signatures and put the statewide ESA recall to voters. Nevertheless, participants in the Koch Network called "breaking the teacher unions" an essential to getting their education ideas enacted.
The Right Wing's Long Game
The group gathered at the Koch Network event are not your run-of-the-mill right-wing conspirators. Members of the network, some 700 of them, have to contribute a minimum of $100,000 annually, and they hold huge sway with Republican candidates and elected officials.
They've been working on building this influence for a long time.
As Jane Mayer recounts in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Charles and David Koch and other conservative billionaire families have orchestrated a decades-long effort to influence U.S. politics. She makes a convincing case that, after years of careful planning and generous funding, the Kochs have succeeded in spreading their antipathy toward government and progressivism and establishing themselves at the center of conservative Republican politics.
While Trump may have initially distanced his presidential campaign from the Kochs and their network, once in office, he quickly hired Koch allies, like DeVos, and pushed new legislation, such as the recently enacted tax plan that the Kochs now pledge $20 million to "sell" to the American public.
Trump also continues to be, as he was in his presidential campaign, an ardent proponent of the Koch network's top education initiative: school choice.
in David Koch's losing run for political office in 1980, Mayer recounts, he campaigned on a platform that called for ending an array of federal programs that make up the social-economic safety net, including welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security; closing numerous federal agencies, including the EPA, SEC, and FBI; and getting rid of public schools.
Mayer calls attention to other wealthy, influential right-wing donors who have targeted public education for transformation, including John M. Olin, Art Pope, Richard Mellon Scaife, Harry and Lynde Bradley, and Richard and Betsy DeVos (yes, that Betsy DeVos).
Among the many campaigns waged by these wealthy individuals and their foundations, Mayer describes numerous examples of their support for "the early national 'school choice' movement" and their desires to dismantle teachers’ unions and traditional public schools. The effort aims to "'wean' Americans from government" by making it easier for parents to use public funds to send their children to private and parochial schools.
Similarly, Nancy MacLean, in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, details how the right's vast network, including the Kochs and the academic institutions they've sponsored, erected a formidable campaign to dismantle government, with public education being among their chief targets. Their hatred for all collective endeavors – including schools, Social Security, voting rights, taxation, and government supported healthcare – drove them to propose the most radical ideas by using prosaic, positive language of "choice" and "reform."
MacLean sources much of her documentation of the radical right's ascension to the "school crisis" in the South, principally Virginia, where court-ordered desegregation sent wealthy white Southerners into a panic over the prospect of seeing their children in the same classrooms with black students.
With the Koch Network's announcement remaking public education is now a chief cause of the right wing political machine, we are seeing the fruition of the decades-long campaign carefully planned and crafted by wealthy conservatives.
Will Democrats Fight Back?
How much money are wealthy Republicans in the Koch Network planning to spend on their education initiative?
"The network declined to offer exact figures," according to Hohmann, "but said it will double investment in K-12 this year, with much more planned down the road."
What is even less clear is how Democrats intend to respond.
Democrats, over the years, have pulled away from their historical support for public schools and classroom teachers and have gradually embraced the language of "reform" and "choice" Republicans use. Many Democrats have turned against teachers union, joined the Republican chorus to "bust" the public school "monopoly," and embraced numerous alternatives to traditional public schools that sap the system of its resources.
"To begin to chronicle the origin of the Democrats’ war on their own—the public school teachers and their unions that provide the troops and the dough in each new campaign cycle to elect the Democrats—is to enter murky territory," writes Jennifer Berkshire for The Baffler.
Berkshire traces the Democrats' turn against public schools back to the Clinton administration and up through Obama. But the course mainstream Democrats chose to follow when talking about public schools sounds not much different from what the Kochs and their kind have been selling, Berkshire argues. "Teachers unions, regulation, and government schools are the problem, Democrats continue insisting into the void; deregulation, market competition and school choice are the fix."
With the deeply unpopular duo of Trump and DeVos leading the Republicans' campaign to dismantle public schools, Democrats have an an opportunity this November to offer a very different message and policy choice for education that turns it into an effective wedge issue for the vast audience of voters who genuinely want support for education to be on the ballot.
As Republicans are poised to go after public schools as “the lowest hanging fruit,” it would be a shame, and ultimately a tragedy, if Democrats let them pick it.