The Huffington Post thinks it has a big story about the eeeevil Koch brothers’ attempts to “[buy] their way into the minds of public school students.” Charles Koch helps fund entrepreneurship classes that last year taught “radical free-market ideology” to more than 1,000 high school students—crazy things, like the economist-proven reality that a minimum wage “hurts workers and slows economic growth.” The classes aim to turn young people into “liberty-advancing agents.” Oh, the horror! Advancing liberty! Here come the reds!
The piece notes the Koch’s “tens of millions of dollars” given to colleges and universities as evidence of their “growing imprint on American classrooms.” The worst thing it can find is a history teacher giving business classes without the proper government certification. The most laughable thing about the “investigative” article, however, is its ignorance of the U.S. education landscape. If anyone wants to examine the big billionaires getting inside the minds of schoolkids, a look at some numbers suggests target A-1 must be Bill Gates.
The Gates Foundation is the world’s largest, at $37 billion in assets, according to its tax filings. That number alone makes it far, far larger than any single or cumulative Koch gift. Some may argue Gates spends money on philanthropy, not politics; but Gates has actually perfected the practice of using nonprofits to influence politics. Leftists claim to hate this tactic—witness the manufactured rage and proposed Internal Revenue Service regulations aiming to curb politics-minded conservative nonprofits—but it seems they actually just hate when it’s used against them.
Michigan State University political scientist Sarah Reckhow calls Gates-style funding “the shadow bureaucracy.” Scott Thomas, dean of Claremont University’s education school, has also studied Gates’ activity. He calls it “advocacy philanthropy.”
The Gates Foundation is “jumping into the policy process itself,” Thomas told me last year. Its activities “look a lot like lobbying.”
Will the Real Cronies Please Come Forward?
Take education policy, where Gates dominates the nation. Gates has directly funded the U.S. Department of Education and state departments of education, from Delaware to Kentucky to Washington and beyond. It has also bankrolled an initiative driving most of education policy, period: Common Core, which alters pre-K through graduate school, teacher training, teacher promotion and job security, local and state tax bills for testing technology, and more. To date, Gates has spent $242 million on Common Core by my calculation, including all the original grants to foster its creation. Of that, $147 million, or more than half, is for direct advocacy, through grants to military coalitions and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, to influence state and federal lawmakers through various trade groups including Chambers of Commerce, and to myriad teacher outreach efforts.
“The Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education,” Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute said in 2009 after five Gates employees moved to the Obama administration. Two joined the U.S. Department of Education, and had to get Obama administration waivers from its conflict of interest policy banning lobbyists from becoming high-ranking federal employees. A few months later, Gates offered states money to write proposals for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grants from a stimulus slush fund—but only for states that had committed to the still-unwritten Common Core.
The Koch brothers’ entrepreneurship program reaches 1,000 of the nation’s 50 million school kids. That’s 0.002 percent—hardly enough to swing any votes even if they all convert to “radical free-market ideology.” Common Core reaches something like 40 million kids. Or, if one wanted to compare Kochs to another education monolith, try The College Board. Last year, 2.2 million kids took their Advanced Placement exams, which are left-biased and getting more so. Its latest-available tax form reports the Board received $3.2 million in government grants in 2011, and another $3.3 million from taxpayers for goods provided (such as when taxpayers cover the cost of a kid’s PSAT test). It also spent almost a million dollars on lobbying, which is no surprise, because a good number of states sponsor AP and SAT tests.
In other words, with College Board, taxpayers pay for millions of children to take politically slanted classes and tests, while in the Koch case at least the Kochs are using their own money to promote their ideas to the bare thousand they can get. Yet no one sees any exposés of College Board or Gates, or even a sniff that something cronyist might be going on here. It took four years for someone besides communist sympathizers (no exaggeration—they describe themselves that way) within teachers unions to complain that, hey, maybe there are reasons to question a private individual’s power over millions of U.S. schoolchildren, especially when Gates has a financial conflict of interest. When a Washington Post reporter finally got around, after everything was said and done, to asking Gates some less-than-fawning questions (it’s not accurate to call them pointed), Gates dropped his jaw because nobody has ever suggested such things to him before.
A basic comparison like this suggests that, if they really care about underhanded attempts to control public education, the media should drop its Koch feeding frenzy and move on to bigger fish, such as Gates. But, since Gates is a self-declared Democrat who favors government intervention on pretext of climate change and funds the nation’s biggest abortion provider, that’s not likely.