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How the Koch Brothers Backed the End of Desegregation in North Carolina Schools

The latest installment of Brave New Foundation's documentary series "Koch Brothers Exposed" reveals the Kochs' assault on public education.
 
 
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Forced busing. Neighborhood schools. These were the watchwords of fights across the nation against the racial integration of public schools in the 1960s. Today, they're the watchwords of a new majority on a North Carolina school board that has set about dismantling the successful integration policy of the Wake County School District.

In a powerful new video short (see video below this article) from Robert Greenwald and his Brave New Foundation, the fifth and latest installment in the foundation's "Koch Brothers Exposed" series, we hear those watchwords tumble from the lips of newly-elected school board members, juxtaposed with footage of 1960s-era segregationists uttering the very same phrases. (Full disclosure: Greenwald serves on the board of directors of the Independent Media Institute, of which AlterNet is a part.)

The members of the Wake County school board's new majority won their seats in 2009 with organizing by the state chapter of Americans For Prosperity, the Tea Party-allied astroturf group funded by Charles and David Koch, in one of the most expensive school board races in the state's history. North Carolina retail magnate Art Pope, who serves as a director on the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, is deeply involved in the effort, as the Washington Post reported earlier this year.

“The Koch brothers have more than $42 billion to make public policy out of their anti-government ideology,” said Brave New Foundation founder Robert Greenwald in a statement. “Their assault against public education epitomizes their tactics to remake our nation.”

In the Wake County installment of "Koch Brothers Exposed," we meet two school board candidates, Karen Simon, who is black, and Rita Rakestraw, who is white. Both were defeated by AFP-backed candidates. "We came to a gunfight [armed] with knives," Simon says ruefully.

In 2000, Wake County shifted its 1970s-era desegregation plan to one based on an economic, not a racial, model mandating that no school in the district "should have more than 40 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the proxy for poverty," according to the Washington Post. By most accounts, the system has worked well, creating reasonably high-performing schools in both poor areas and more wealthy enclaves. The economic formula maintained the racial diversity created by the earlier racial model, and also benefited poor whites, as well.

But some parents were disgruntled by occasional changes in a child's school assignment -- which officials said was the result of booming growth in the county, but parents claimed were made in order to maintain the economic balance. Americans For Prosperity was able to magnify those instances to marshal support among whites to elect four Tea Party types to the school board, tilting the balance to a majority that was ready to dismantle Wake County's desegregation policy. In Greenwald's film, we see one of those members, Deborah Prickett,  complain of "forced busing" during the 2009 campaign, and another, John Tedesco, makes the case for "neighborhood schools."

In its packed 11 minutes, the film also introduces viewers a host of local figures who oppose the re-segregation plan, including Sue Sturgis of the Institute for Southern Studies, who says that the ultimate goal of the Koch brothers is not simply the resegregation of public schools, but the privatization the public school system nationwide. The Americans For Prosperity Foundation's Art Pope is a strong proponent of private charter schools. A graphic in the film asserts that the Kochs have given $19.4 million to think tanks "that work against public education."

According to Greenwald, Americans For Prosperity, in addition to helping school board candidates organize and develop messaging, also facilitated an alliance of groups dedicated to the privatization of public schools that includes the Wake County Community Alliance, Wake County Citizens for Quality Education, Wake Cares, and the Wake County Republican Party. The alliance, according to Greenwald, "allowed for an additional $190,000 for the AFP-funded candidates." The North Carolina AFP chapter, according to a statement by the Brave New Foundation, had access to $1 million between 2007 - 2009.

At the root of the Wake County re-segregation plan, explains journalist Bob Geary of The Independent, a Raleigh-based progressive newspaper, is the economic libertarianism of the Kochs. The implication is that a less successful school system -- one where poor children are held separate in failing schools -- will lead to the undermining of public education to the point where privatization can prevail. Racial prejudice can be a great motivator for political organizing; in Wake County, it would appear to be the means to a libertarian end.

In the film's most moving segments, we meet some of the students who would be affected by the re-segregation of the school system, including a pair of best friends who call themselves "twin sisters," despite the fact that one is white and one is black. Now in high school, they tell of meeting in a school dance program in the sixth grade, and in a sweet piece of video storytelling, we watch them perform a piece of modern dance in perfect unison. In another segment, a high-school boy who looks to be of South Asian descent holds open his yearbook to the pages showing the photos of those in his class -- a veritable rainbow of faces. "This pretty much describes my education since kindergarten," he says.

Then we meet Quinton White, an African American and one of 700 school students who received notices of reassignment to his "neighborhood school." White is in high school.

"I strongly feel that it's racism," he says. "I strongly feel that it's segregation. And it was all by surprise, all on short notice." The local chapter of the NAACP has filed a civil rights complaint with the federal government on behalf of those students, who, like White, are part of the first group to receive such reassignments, which prompted vigorous protests outside school board meetings. At present, the re-segregation plan is on hold -- not revoked, but temporarily halted.

In the 1950s, Robert Welch, a native North Carolinian who made a fortune in candy manufacturing, joined with Fred Koch, the oil-magnate father of Charles and David, to form the John Birch Society, which fiercely opposed civil rights law and public school desegregation. After the failure of Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, which was backed by the Birchers, Welch courted Alabama Gov. George Wallace as a potential Birch-backed candidate. (Wallace ran for the presidency as an independent in 1968.)

In the Wake County installment of "Koch Brothers Exposed," The Independent's Bob Geary explains how the term "forced busing" was one of Wallace's favorites. Greenwald then serves up vintage footage of Wallace intoning, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Seems some apples don't fall far from the tree.