Education is the foundation of democracy. As a society, we Americans knew that once. A unanimous Supreme Court said in the 1953 Brown v Board of Education decision: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities…. It is the very foundation of good citizenship.”
Today, we have lost that recognition, lost our certainty that education is a common good that we can all support. A 2017 Gallup poll found that only 36% of Americans have confidence in our public schools. And that is an increase of 10% since 2014. “Government schools” is what some conservatives, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Trump, call public schools now.
Where has our common understanding of public education as the foundation of democracy gone? Why have we lost it?
Undermining public education has been a deliberate campaign, not an accident. It’s not as though we just didn’t have enough money to educate all of our children for the common good. When money was short, whether because of recession or other economic events, we chose to lower funds for education. And when there was money available again, we did not raise support for education.
It would be one thing if there were a public discussion about curricula for our schools and universities, if choices about educational directions were being openly advertised and discussed and chosen. This is not what is happening.
In mid-November, Tucson news reported that an economics class being taught at four area high schools had never been “properly vetted or approved.” The course, Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship, “is offered as a dual-credit college course developed in partnership with the University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom….” Once the course was “discovered” embedded in the TUSD curriculum, critics said it represented the worst aspects of the Koch Foundation’s attempt “to fund an ideological revolution through its clandestine infiltration of public institutions.”
What is the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom? And what is the Koch Foundation? The Center is one of several hundred programs funded by donations from the billionaire Koch family and their foundations in colleges and universities around the country. Dr. Michael McKenna is the Chair of the Philosophy Department and Director of the Freedom Center, as it is known. There is no transparency about this center — what it teaches, the books it assigns, the professors it hires. The Center has its own publishing company, Sagent, which published the text taught in the TUSD high school course.
At Arizona State University, Koch funding has helped pay for the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty. Public information about the Director of the Center, William Boyes, indicates that his podcasts include titles like “Get Rid of Public Schools” and “What Must Be Done” in which he opens by insisting that the media, academia, and K-12 are “strongly skewed to the left.” It is therefore no surprise that one of the topics for research at the center is the “Demise of Government Schools.”
While some may argue that the Koch money is not going to buy influence, clearly the purpose of free market centers and programs funded by the Charles Koch Foundation’s (CKF) network of donors is an attempt at political control of the educational system. The network erodes institutional integrity to leverage donor control.
In 2008, the Koch Foundations negotiated a secret deal with Florida State University that would allow — in exchange for a “donation” of 1.5 million dollars — the Kochs to have control over hiring decisions and curriculum development. Five years later, public outcry forced FSU to renegotiate that deal. But recent disclosures indicate that “in addition to influencing hiring decisions within the programs it funded, CKF took part in designing required classes for economics majors, could cut off graduate fellowships based on proposed dissertation topics, and steered the creation of a new certificate program within the department.” These agreements only came to light when the memorandum of understanding revealed the extent of Koch involvement of every part of what should have been left to the faculty and administration of FSU to determine.
The Koch involvement in politics and education is not new. It is the result of a fifty-year campaign to create political leaders who follow an extreme capitalist/libertarian line of thought. They support unfettered capitalist markets without oversight, limited public input into any legislation and minimal legislation affecting businesses and corporations. Rather than supporting government safety nets, this perspective supports slashing taxes. And slashing taxes essentially means eliminating the public education of young people and substituting a system of private education that will produce political leaders who think like the Kochs.
Education, said the Supreme Court in 1953, “is the very foundation of good citizenship.” They meant public education, created by educators in communities to advance the common good. They did not mean indoctrination into one specific mode of thought that advances only the concerns of a few. They did not mean handing education over to be funded by a few wealthy individuals to achieve an end from which they will benefit. Education IS the most important function of state and local governments. We surrender our schools to the control of others at peril to ourselves, to our democracy.
Originally published in Educational Technology Solutions, 2/3/18.