Education

How the Koch Brothers Are Trying to Brainwash America's Kids

One Koch-financed front group is supposedly promoting educational materials with a far-right agenda.

You've heard a lot about how the Koch brothers spend big in our elections. Indeed, in 2014, the network of Koch groups spent $100 million, making them the largest juggernaut of the election. 

But in addition to direct spending to impact elections, the Kochs are waging an ideological war for the minds of Americans, hoping to convince them of the merits of far-right-wing ideology. In North Carolina, that war is now being waged for the youngest recruits: children.

Rewriting North Carolina's Curriculum, Koch-Style

The Kochs have come under intense scrutiny in recent years as their names have become synonymous with far-right, pro-corporate ideology. One way to get around this brand problem is to finance front groups that allow the Kochs to promote their worldview while the oil billionaires themselves remain in the background.

One prominent example is the Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute, which the Kochs finance. BRI promotes itself chiefly as a civic-minded organization offering basic education about America's founding principles; its mission statement says it simply seeks to “educate young people about the words and ideas of America’s Founders, the liberties guaranteed in our Founding documents, and how our Founding principles continue to affect and shape a free society.”

Perhaps it was just such an innocuous introduction to the organization that convinced the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to grant BRI a $100,000 contract to help it develop a new civics curriculum for its students. Yet as Media Matters' Daniel Angster points out, there's a deeper right-wing scheme at work here. In 2011, the state's legislature passed the “Founding Principles Act,” which was a bill from the corporate front group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which also happens to be funded by the Kochs. BRI's board of directors includes a senior vice president at Koch Industries, Mark Humphrey. Also on the board are Ryan Stoweres, who works at the Charles G, Koch Charitable Foundation, Rob Testwuide of the Koch-funded Institute for Energy Research, and Todd Zywicki of the Koch-backed Mercatus Center.

BRI is, as Angster notes, also financed by Art Pope, North Carolina's resident billionaire conservative. So why are the Kochs and other right-wing billionaires financing BRI? What does it have to offer?

Teaching Kids Civics Means Being Conservative

In 2013, IndyWeek's Billy Ball dug into some of the educational materials promoted by BRI. What he found was that the organization was promoting a far-right agenda masked as nonpartisan civics education. One of its lesson plans encourages students to question whether the 2010 Affordable Care Act is constitutional. Another lesson plan took aim at gun control, reading, “Some regulations have been criticized as criminalizing the behavior of millions of law-abiding Americans because of the criminal acts of others. Should laws be based on harm/intended harm, or also on the potential to do harm?”

Online, the institute has published a series of YouTube videos explaining core American concepts. One of them, on representative government, sounds like a litany of conservative talking points. “Though many refer to the United States as a democracy, this is not accurate. The United States is not a democracy, but rather a constitutional republic,” it lectures. “A constitutional republic would be a republican bounded government, a limited government,” one of the featured academics then says.

In its online “Americapedia,” the institute labels “industry” as a civic value, quoting James Madison that “private industry...is the basis of public happiness.” Under the section on paying taxes, Americapedia warns that the Founding Fathers believed “the power of taxation was prone to abuse,” in an entry replete with quotations about not taking too much from the citizenry.

Ignoring The Story

Media Matters' Angster cataloged this week how most North Carolina newspapers have ignored the story of the BRI contract altogether. Only one of the four major newspapers in the state wrote an original report linking the Kochs to BRI and the civics education overhaul. "It’s not allowing teachers to be professionals. I would love to look at the lesson plans, but I would not want that to be dictated,” said Paige Meszaros, a Raleigh teacher, to the paper.

Perhaps that reaction is exactly what the Kochs fear happening. When a Denver-area school board earlier this year moved to install a right-wing history curriculum, students revolted, forcing them to abandon the plans. North Carolina has been the site of intense protests led by the Moral Monday movement, which seeks to throw off the far-right's hold on the state. If news of the Koch takeover of civics education spreads, those protests could soon turn to the educational system.

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

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