Philanthropic groups associated with billionaire businessman and activist Charles Koch have announced two initiatives to deepen their involvement in K-12 education.
One initiative is Yes Every Kid, a group that intends to find common ground between groups that typically have disagreed vehemently over issues such as labor protections and school funding. It’s a social-welfare organization—a 501(c)4 in the language of the Internal Revenue Service—that will be able to take part in lobbying and political campaign work such as promoting ballot measures and committees. It will operate under the umbrella of Stand Together, a nonprofit group backed by Koch that promotes anti-poverty efforts.
The other initiative is an agreement between the Charles Koch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation for each group to donate $5 million to what’s essentially a Silicon Valley-style incubator for education called 4.0 Schools. This group will use that $10 million donation, and another $5 million from other donors, to seed “500 new schools, programs and education tools across the country,” according to a statement from the Koch and Walton foundations. Among its activities, the Walton Family Foundation supports charter schools and private school choice programs. (The Walton Family Foundation provides grant support for coverage of parent-engagement issues, including charters and school choice, in Education Week.)
Charles Koch, along with his brother David, have long been associated with conservative political causes through groups such as Americans for Prosperity. And for some time, the Koch brothers have been some of the biggest antagonists for Democrats and liberal groups, including teachers’ unions. In January, the Koch donor network announced plans to get more involved in K-12 education. At that meeting of the Seminar Network, a Koch-backed organization, the group said it was interested in promoting personalized learning, improving schools, and working “alongside” teachers.
But the American Federation of Teachers, a long-time opponent of the Kochs, reacted cautiously to this news from January: The union’s president, Randi Weingarten, reiterated her criticism of the Kochs’ past work, and said she was waiting to see if the news was just a public-relations gambit or the start of a true change of direction.
Here’s some more information about the two new initiatives:
1) Yes Every Kid
The Koch network has typically supported politically divisive policies to bolster school choice. Yet in a conference call with reporters this week, Stand Together CEO Brian Hooks emphasized that one of Yes Every Kid’s main aims is to “move away from the ‘us versus them’ framing in K-12" and explore what cooperation across traditional political boundaries can accomplish.
“Let’s clear the decks and the conversation, and let’s focus on what really matters. To my mind, that is, every student, every kid,” Hooks said. He added that in many discussions about strategies for improving education, “This is framed as private [school] versus public [school], teacher versus student, parent versus administrator. And that’s not productive. All of those people in their hearts, they want their kids to succeeds.”
The fundamental idea behind Yes Every Kid is supposed to be the same as what led the Koch donor network to partner with liberals to push Congress to pass a criminal-justice reform bill, which President Donald Trump signed into law last year. (Broadly speaking, Charles Koch and Trump do not see eye-to-eye.)
It’s not exactly clear what groups or policy issues this kind of work will involve. But given vigorous activity on issues such as teacher pay, for example, it’s possible the group could find a lot of room to run in states.
2) 4.0 Schools
Led by CEO Hassan Hassan, 4.0 Schools pitches itself as a driver of innovation in education that’s done everything from help open charter schools to run education-technology companies and “organize communities.” (They helped the founder of the Future Public School charter school, for example, get his work off the ground.) Groups that obtain fellowships from 4.0 Schools receive coaching and networking opportunities as well as capital.
The group’s board members include some familiar faces from the K-12 world, including Kenneth Campbell, the executive director of IDEA charter schools’ arm in southern Louisiana; Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (who also writes a blog for Education Week); and Tom Vander Ark, the founder of Getting Smart, a learning design firm.
Here are two groups supported by 4.0 Schools that got the Koch donor network interested in backing the incubator.
- Electric Girls: Founded by Flor Serna and Maya Ramos, the organization helps “develop leadership skills in young girls through their learning of electronics and computer programming skills.” At only 24 years old, Flor Serna—the founder of Electric Girls—is now mentoring nearly 100 K-12 innovators across the country.
- unCommon Construction: According to the group’s website, “Youth from different high schools apply to join a diverse team to earn hourly pay and school internship credit for building a house in a semester. With the revenue from each project, apprentices also earn a matching ‘Equity Award Scholarship’ for further education, industry certifications or the tools needed for long-term employment.”
Photo: Charles Koch speaks in his office at Koch Industries in 2012, in Wichita, Kan. (Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP-File)