Here is how political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe the influence of the Koch brothers in American Amnesia, their 2016 book about the essential role of government for balancing the power of private interests: “The… array of Koch-related organizations was no Rube Goldberg machine. It was more like an offshore holding company, designed to shield donors and to make it all but impossible to determine whether money designated for ‘social welfare purposes’—exempt from campaign finance rules—found its way into electoral politics… They built a rich people’s movement. Beginning in 2003, Charles began to form a social network that could intervene in politics on a grand scale.” (American Amnesia, pp. 234-235)
This past weekend the Kochs convened their top givers, their Seminar Network, at a retreat center in Indian Wells, California. Here is Associated Press reporter Steve Peoples’ description: “The Koch network’s chief lieutenants renewed their vow this weekend to spend up to $400 million on politics and policy to shape November’s midterm elections nationwide. That’s more than the combined resources spent by the Republican National Committee, the National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce in the 2016 election cycle.” The 550 people who were present at last weekend’s gathering of the Koch Seminar Network have pledged at least $100,000 to the Kochs’ network this year.
Investment promoting the Kochs’ pet causes has grown rapidly. For National Public Radio, Tim Mak reports: “During the 2010 cycle, the Koch network spent a comparatively meager $125 million to influence American policy and politics.” “Facing this challenging midterm environment, the Koch network will spend nearly $400 million over the 2018 cycle to defend conservative policy gains from last year. This is 60 percent higher than they spent in the 2016 election cycle, which included a presidential campaign.”
What’s more, in 2018 public education policy will be a primary target of the Koch-driven political work. Here in yesterday’s Washington Post is James Hohmann explaining how the Koch brothers plan to “fundamentally transform America’s education system”: “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… Leaders of the network dreamed of disrupting the status quo, customizing learning and breaking the teacher unions.”
More specifically, reports Hohmann, “One initial priority is expanding educational savings 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.”
Hohmann quotes Stacy Hock a Koch donor residing in Texas: “The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12… I think this is the area that is most glaringly obvious.”
One top Koch priority this year is defeating an Arizona ballot referendum that, if passed, will eliminate Arizona’s giant education savings accounts. Parents and teachers gathered thousands of signatures—enough to mount a 2018 referendum—to protect Arizona’s public schools from the threat of Governor Douglas Ducey’s massive expansion of Arizona’s statewide Education Empowerment Accounts voucher scheme.
Education savings accounts are a kind of neo-voucher—a debit card made up of public tax dollars that parents who have removed their children from public schools can use to pay for private school tuition, online programs, private tutoring, special services for disabled children, and education equipment and materials for home schooling. In such plans, parents are free to patch together the programming they believe will educate their children.
Such expensive privatization programs are guaranteed to swallow a state’s education budget and destroy public education. Arizona originally created the Education Empowerment Accounts in 2011 with a cap on enrollment of 30,000 students. But in 2017 the Arizona legislature and Governor Ducey made Arizona’s education savings accounts universal by lifting the cap as of 2020. Even with the limit of 30,000 students, in 2015-16, Ducey’s Education Empowerment Accounts drained $20.6 million from Arizona’s public schools. (Learn more on Education Savings Account voucher programs here.)
Arizona’s Governor Ducey, became a member of the Koch network in 2011. Hohmann describes a speech by Ducey during last weekend’s Koch Network meeting, a speech in which Ducey described the importance of defeating the grassroots referendum to destroy his universial Empowerment Scholarship Accounts: “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… I didn’t run for governor to play small ball. I think this is an important idea.'” Hohmann listened as people at the meeting defined their cause as a battle against organized teachers.
In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, Gordon Lafer explains why public education policy is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)
Toward the end of American Amnesia, political scientists Hacker and Pierson describe the importance of democratic involvement—what will be required of Arizona’s citizens next November as they vote, we can hope, to support the referendum aimed at defeating Governor Ducey’s Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts: “As everyone who has read The Federalist Papers knows, the Founders feared a system corrupted by narrow interests—what James Madison termed the ‘mischiefs of faction.’ Madison spoke for all the delegates when he explained that elected representatives had to rise above any group whose goals were ‘adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.'” (American Amnesia, p. 341)