Koch Brothers Plan New Scheme Fully to Privatize American Education—at Public Expense

Last Friday, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described this year’s wave of strikes and walkouts by school teachers: “Something funny happened on the way to the labor movement’s funeral.  When Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and his antilabor colleagues on the Supreme Court handed down the Janus v. AFSCME decision last June, unions braced for the worst.”  But, Milbank concludes: “Labor leaders ought to thank Alito—and send chocolates to the Koch brothers for bankrolling the anti-union court case.  Their brazen assault, combined with President Trump’s hostility toward labor, has generated a backlash, invigorating public-sector unions and making a case for the broader labor movement to return to its roots and embrace a more militant style.”

I don’t know about the implications for all of labor, and I’d argue with Milbank’s point that this year’s strikes by teachers have been primarily a response to the Janus decision. The growing wave of teachers’ strikes has instead been a cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay.

But Milbank is correct that the Janus decision has not undermined membership in the two big public sector teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association: “The American Federation of Teachers expected it might lose 30 percent of its revenue after the high court gave public-sector workers the right to be free riders, benefiting from union representation but paying nothing.  Instead, the 1.7 million-member union added 88,500 members since Janus—more than offsetting the 84,000 ‘agency-fee payers’ it lost because of the Supreme Court ruling… The NEA had projected a loss of as many as 200,000 members, based on previous drop-membership campaigns.  Instead, the 3 million-member union is actually up 13,935 members…and the increase in membership among new teachers is particularly encouraging.”

Milbank quotes Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, identifying the source of the money behind the attack on public sector unions that culminated in the Janus decision: “The Koch brothers and their team… expected us to hide under the bed and shake in our shoes… We stood up on soapboxes and stages and painted picket signs.”

It is a very good thing that the teachers’ unions are geared up for a fight, because on Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s James Hohmann reported: “The donor network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch will launch a new organization next month to focus on changing K-12 education as we know it.  The effort will begin as a pilot project focused on five states with a combined school-age population of 16 million kids, but officials said Monday that they aren’t ready to identify them yet because they’re still finalizing partnerships with some of the country’s leading educational organizations.”

The details of the new Koch-driven plan aren’t clear, but there are some hints: “Previewing their K-12 push, Koch strategists pointed to research being conducted with their financial support by Ashley Berner at Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Education Policy.  Her main interest is expanding what she calls ‘educational pluralism,’ which is when government funds all types of schools, including explicitly religious ones, but does not necessarily run them.”

Hohmann quotes some of the background materials distributed when the new K-12 initiative was announced. These materials describe Berner’s work: “Berner points to examples such as the Netherlands, which funds 36 different types of schools, from Islamic to Jewish Orthodox to socialist…  Alberta, Canada funds homeschooling along with Inuit, Jewish, and secular schools.  In Australia, the central government is the nation’s top funder of independent schools. Other countries with plural school systems include Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Sweden.”

Hohmann quotes Berner, who calls her school choice plan “pluralism” and considers it a middle ground in the debate about the privatization of public education—even though her idea privileges privatized schools and seems entirely to erase the idea of a universal public school system: “It’s the democratic norm around the world.  In pluralism, choice and accountability are two sides of the same coin…  We’ve got to start supporting politicians who are willing to make compromises.  Americans are tired of the battles between charters and district schools; these take up too much energy and resources. A pluralistic system doesn’t pit entire sectors against one another.”

So… Berner steals the word “pluralism” as a new brand for multiple forms of school governance. According to Berner—and apparently the folks at the Koch network—pluralism in school governance seems to mean we’d have all sorts of privately governed and managed schools—all of them paid for with our tax dollars. The Koch Brothers are setting out to help Betsy DeVos realize her dream.

Hohmann quotes a Koch network spokesperson pretending that this new effort will not be anti-public school teacher: “For too long, this issue has been framed unnecessarily as us vs. them, public vs. private, teacher vs. student, parent vs. administrator… The teachers who have expressed frustration in the past several months are good people.  I mean, they’re teachers.  We all remember the positive impact that a teacher or several teachers have had on our lives.  They’re expressing legitimate concerns.  But the current approach means that nobody wins, so they need better options.”

Who are “the country’s leading educational organizations” with which the Koch Brothers plan to collaborate?  I am pretty sure these educational partners will not be the teachers’ unions.  In fact, we’ll be counting on the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to provide leadership as we try to protect public schools from this new attempt to privatize the common good.