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Koch Network Wants to Work ‘Alongside Teachers.’ Will Educators Buy It?

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 29, 2019 4 min read
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Teacher unrest is one of the biggest stories of the past year—and a powerful philanthropist says he wants to help them. But is this friendship doomed to be stillborn?

The donor network led by Charles Koch, a conservative businessman, political donor, and philanthropist, has announced through its Seminar Network that it wants to step up its work in the K-12 space, the Associatd Press reported Tuesday. The AP says the goal is for the effort to reach 15 million students.

The Koch donor network’s resources would be put to use in five states to help “failing” schools, promote individualized learning, and invest in teachers and classroom, according to the Washington Post’s coverage of the network’s three-day meeting. However, the states and the amount of money involved haven’t been shared yet.

In addition, the Koch network’s chairman, Brian Hooks, seemed to suggest that while Charles Koch and his brother David are typically associated with fights against teachers’ unions, the forthcoming initiative won’t take the same bare-knuckle political approach. “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,” Hooks said. “But the current approach means that nobody wins, so they need better options.”

He added that the network wants to work “alongside teachers” to “find a better way.” The Post’s James Hohmann points out that the Charles Koch Foundation has recently promoted education governance models in other countries such as the Netherlands, in which the government funds—but does not run—several types of educational models, including religious schools.

Does this sound familiar? If so, that might be because Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited the Netherlands last year and had similar praise for the model in that country and in the United Kingdom, which she also visited. “School choice is open to every type of school” in the U.K. and the Netherlands, DeVos said at the time. “The corollary here in the U.S. is that states are free to, and many have begun a process in this direction, to allow families to choose from a wide range of schools including private faith-based schools. That I think can and should continue to be a progression for states that think it’s the right thing for them.” Clearly, the idea has some fans in the conservative movement.

Charles Koch and David Koch are among the biggest and most powerful critics of labor unions, and through their group Americans for Prosperity have worked to diminish the power of unions in the wake of the Janus v. AFSCME ruling from the Supreme Court last year that banned “fair share” fees. They have also worked to promote vouchers.

We reached out to the American Federation of Teachers, one of the two national teachers’ unions, for a response to this plan from the Koch network. Here is AFT President Randi Weingarten’s full statement:

While we would welcome a genuine interest in public education, coupled with an investment geared at supplementing, not supplanting already scarce funding for our public schools, one can understand our skepticism given the Kochs just spent over $80 million to try and eviscerate teacher unions and countless millions more to destabilize public education.

To date the Koch strategy has been to profit from and compete with public schools, while trying to “defund and defang” anyone who got in their way. As we have not heard from them about this plan, only time will tell whether the paradigm shift in favor of public schooling is forcing the Kochs to pivot—to work with those they have tried to destroy—or whether this is simply a PR stunt.

Weingarten and union leadership don’t represent all educators by any means, of course. But there are other questions raised by the network’s basic outline of its plan.

The potential focus of the Koch network’s initiative on individualized learning might also raise eyebrows among skeptics of personalized learning. The idea is billed as a way to customize instruction to better fit students’ needs, often through education technology. But critics have said the concept is often vague, and some worry it will simply become an incoherent muddle like other past supposed revolutions in instruction. Sometimes even people working in the same school building can’t agree on what “personalized learning” means, our colleague Ben Herold reported last year.

And school turnaround work is notoriously difficult. For example, a much-publicized analysis of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants, which provided $7 billion to schools to use for various strategies, didn’t ultimately lead to much school improvement, our colleague Sarah D. Sparks reported in 2016.

The Koch network’s interest in education is part of a larger pitch by the group to emphasize work across party lines. A video published by the Seminar Network on Sunday, for example, emphasizes the group’s work with liberals like CNN commentator Van Jones to help pass a criminal-justice bill in Congress last year.

Photo: Charles Koch in February 2007. (Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/TNS)

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