Walker Bragman, Alex Kotch: How Dark Money Shaped The School Safety Debate
This well-researched and in depth piece was the product of a collaboration between the Daily Poster and the Center for Media and Democracy. In it, they argue that dark money fueled much of the pandemic school debates.
When the pandemic first hit the U.S. in the spring of 2020, Koch-affiliated groups saw an opportunity to reassess American education, moving away from public schools to private and homeschool alternatives. Koch and his brother David, who died in 2019, had spent decades fighting teachers’ unions, pushing school privatization, and attacking state education funding.
On March 13, 2020, Yes Every Kid — a front group founded by the Koch network in 2019 as part of a larger effort to shape K-12 education in the states — launched a #LearnEverywhere campaign promoting remote learning and homeschooling. Three days later, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank co-founded and heavily subsidized by Koch, published a commentary declaring that the U.S. could “tap into” charter, private, and homeschooling “if brick-and-mortar schooling is substantially disrupted.”
The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing nonprofit heavily funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute, also published articles in March 2020 in favor of using public school funds to pay parents to homeschool their kids. Heritage senior policy analyst Jonathan Butcher wrote a policy brief for the Koch-founded-and-funded Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank based at George Mason University, calling to funnel state funds into for-profit charter school companies providing virtual learning.
The message was blasted out by other groups in Koch’s orbit, including his flagship political advocacy outfit, Americans For Prosperity (AFP); the Independent Women’s Forum, a dark money group bankrolled by Koch organizations and the heirs to the Walmart fortune; and the State Policy Network, a web of libertarian state-based policy organizations.
But within a few months, the school narrative out of Koch world began to shift, coinciding with growing concerns about labor shortages and changing workplace dynamics caused by nationwide school closures. According to Education Week, a staggering 55.1 million students were impacted by the closures at their peak.
The closures meant a loss of childcare for many parents, which contributed to plummeting labor force participation early in the pandemic. An April 2020 guide to school reopenings from the consultancy McKinsey & Co., whose clients include many of the world’s largest companies, estimated that 27 million Americans were dependent upon childcare in order to work.
“Where a significant proportion of workers rely on schools for childcare, reopening schools (at least for younger children) might be a prerequisite to tapping into the full productive capacity of the workforce,” the report noted.
The tight labor market changed the relationship between employers and their workers, who began demanding more flexibility and better work-life balance. Companies were forced to respond by raising wages — albeit inadequately — in order to attract workers.
Enterprises like Koch’s were eager to force a return to the old paradigm. These interests had already begun employing the same think tanks and quasi-academic networks they had pioneered a decade before promoting the anti-government Tea Party movement to fuel and legitimize attacks on pandemic safety measures, so they could force a return to normalcy and boost corporate profits.
Now, these interests began to use the same playbook to try to force schools back to normal.