Powerful Koch network taking on school choice with new group

Charles G. Koch is an American businessman, political donor and philanthropist. He is...
Charles G. Koch is an American businessman, political donor and philanthropist. He is co-owner, chairman of the board, and chief executive officer of Koch Industries(WHSV)
Published: Jul. 12, 2019 at 11:45 AM EDT
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Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch's powerful network that's known for influencing state policy is now targeting education issues like school choice as the movement battles a new wave of hostility from Democrats who oppose charter schools and private school vouchers that use taxpayer money.

Koch in June announced the Yes Every Kid initiative as the latest addition to his sprawling network of wealthy donors, political groups and tax-exempt advocacy organizations best known for pushing anti-regulation, small-government policies. Its political arm, Americans for Prosperity, has made waves supporting the tea party and fighting former President Barack Obama's health care law.

The Yes Every Kid group is tasked with monitoring statehouses where it can be influential on school choice, said Stacy Hock, a Texas philanthropist who is among hundreds of donors each contributing at least $100,000 annually to the Koch network's wide-ranging agenda.

Hock and officials with the Koch network said it's too early to provide specifics about what policies the group is pushing.

"The priority is to go where there is a political appetite to be open to policy change and lean in there," said Hock, who also leads the Texans for Education Opportunity advocacy group that supports charters and other education alternatives.

She cited Texas, West Virginia, Tennessee and Florida as priority states where school choice proposals have flourished.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, called Koch's new effort a public relations stunt.

"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," Weingarten said in a statement.

Koch's new education reform lobbying group comes as the conservative icon recalibrates his priorities, both by downplaying the politics synonymous with his family's name and emphasizing work with unlikely allies, such as partnering with liberal CNN commentator Van Jones on prison reform.

Though Koch has previously supported publicly subsidized voucher programs for private schools, the new initiative wades deeper into K-12 education and school choice at a delicate — or even hostile — time for private school vouchers and charter schools.

Democrats are largely united against the idea of giving taxpayer dollars to individual private school tuition but have long been divided on charters, which mainly exist in high-poverty urban areas and operate outside the traditional public education system on taxpayer dollars.

Critics have slammed charters for transparency and accountability issues and say they drain badly needed resources from neighborhood public schools that enroll the vast majority of U.S. students. Supporters say they find different and better ways to serve children who struggle within the confines of conventional schools.

The charter school movement has come under recent attack by more liberal Democrats. Several Democratic governors elected last year in strong charter enrollment states like California, Illinois and Michigan have signaled they won't be as hospitable to charters as previous administrations.

West Virginia this year became the 45th state to approve a law adopting charter schools.

A pivot toward charters in Republican-led states comes as Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, declared at a national conference this month that the movement must take its fight for "political survival" to suburban and rural areas.

Yes Every Kid officials won't say how much money they will pour into the new initiative and have yet to formally identify its agenda beyond saying it would take an "open-minded approach" to state-level education issues such as school choice, school finance reform and teacher autonomy.

The Koch network is turning to community leaders to help support local priorities, rather than prescribing its own goals, said Derrell Bradford, a Yes Every Kid board member and executive vice president of 50CAN, a school choice advocacy group.

"This group is not bound by working on any one specific issue," Bradford said. "We're also taking a very humbling approach to the kind of policy vision we want to see."