by Cassidy Pollard, who works full-time with UnKoch My Campus
After months of fear-mongering to create a new moral panic around “Critical Race Theory” being taught in schools, as well as targeting trans students throughout the country, the Koch network’s real agenda with regards to our public schools is beginning to come into focus. Make no mistake, the recent uproar around “Critical Race Theory” and “protecting the sanctity of sports” by attacking transgender students is not an organic movement driven by concerned parents, as some on the right would have you believe. Instead, it’s a calculated and manufactured tactic by Charles Koch’s political network to undermine faith in our public schools.
The Koch network knows that they have no real base, so they need to manufacture outrage around culture-war issues in order to capture existing bases from the Republican party and other spheres of the right. And now, with the announcement that Ilya Shapiro, a Vice President of the Koch-founded Cato Institute, is running for a school board seat in Falls Church, it’s looking like there’s potential for another wave of Koch network involvement in local school board elections. Virginia just may be the next battleground for control over local school boards, as Falls Church’s upcoming election is one of a few taking place this year, with most of the Commonwealth electing their school boards in 2023. With this in mind, Shapiro’s candidacy begins to paint a different picture: a pilot test by the Koch network to gauge Virginian’s response to candidates connected to them, and the effectiveness of investing more heavily and openly in elections down the line. If Shapiro’s connections to the Koch network go unchallenged throughout this election, it could send a signal that come 2023, when there will inevitably be swaths of candidates running on anti-CRT and anti-trans platforms, Koch cash might start rolling in across Virginia.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this trend. Following the defeats of Koch’s preferred presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012, we saw them – and the Tea Party movement that they largely helped to create – shift their focus to local school board elections. Candidates who shared the Koch network’s anti-union stance and pro-school privatization bent ran for and were elected to school boards across the country, with the help of the Koch front group Americans For Prosperity (AFP). Every time, disaster followed. In Jefferson County, Colorado, a delegation of candidates supported by AFP took control of the school board and immediately went about preventing the district from bargaining with labor unions. In Wake County, North Carolina, the same thing occurred – and the AFP candidates effectively re-segregated the country’s schools by cutting the district’s busing programs.
The risks that come with those who share Koch’s fringe-libertarian worldview infiltrating our public schools doesn’t end with cutting school integration programs and forcing out teachers unions, though. It can go as far as rewriting curricula to turn our schools into incubators of anti-government thought. Previously, the Koch-funded Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona, which was founded by the Kochs and their network of affiliates, created a program dubbed “Philosophy, Politics, and Economics of Freedom” to bring their libertarian teachings to high school classrooms in Tucson. The courses developed for this program were based on a textbook, Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship, which was published by a publishing house owned by its authors and wasn’t peer reviewed. The textbook is, without question, a propaganda document for the fringe-libertarian ideology that underpins the Koch network. The concerning trend here is that the attempted infiltration into Arizona’s K-12 schools was based out of a Koch-funded center at a state university with connections to the Koch network. Given George Mason University’s proximity to Falls Church, and its notoriety as a strategic centerpiece for the Koch network’s political agenda for education, I don’t feel remiss in worrying that we might witness a similar plan play out right here at home in the Commonwealth.
Enter Ilya Shapiro, the Cato Institute VP running for a seat on Falls Church’s school board. Shapiro might tell you that his campaign hasn’t received any funding from AFP or other Koch front organizations – and up until this article was written, that’s true. But during his time as a VP at the Cato Institute – which was originally called the Charles Koch Foundation – the organization has continued going full speed ahead on advocating for redirecting taxpayer money to private schools. Shapiro himself has stated at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute that the Department of Education is unconstitutional (timestamp 27:13). American Enterprise Institute also receives funding from the Kochs and is connected to the broader Koch network. Shapiro claims he wants to run a campaign based on transparency and accountability which I’m all for. But that’s a two-way street, and people deserve to have the full picture on the dark-money network that Shapiro’s employers exist within. It’s a network of wealthy mega-donors that seeks to undermine both our public institutions and our faith in them, weaken the ability of unions to collectively bargain for better wages and conditions, and peddle skepticism on climate change to prevent action and protect fossil fuel profits. And, for the record, it was the cause of the transparency and accountability crisis that George Mason has faced over the past ten years due to their connections with the Charles Koch Foundation.
Virginia has come a long way in the past ten years – I would know, since I was born and raised here. One of the most marked transformations I’ve noticed in the Commonwealth has been the evolution of our public school systems. From the re-emergence of collective bargaining for teachers to the change in approach towards LGBTQ+ students, there’s much progress to be proud of. But make no mistake; whenever these “libertarian” groups descend upon our school system, teachers unions and trans students are some of the first targets.
As a student who suffered through Virginia public schools while in the closet (before much of the Commonwealth’s shift to a more accepting stance towards to LGBTQ+ students), afraid of retaliation both by peers and by administration, the thought of watching the progress that’s been made over these past five years be eroded by Koch’s dark money network leaves me sick to my stomach. The thought of Virginia becoming the next battleground for the right arguing to subject children to genital examinations and using sports as a proxy to attack trans students leaves me terrified that another generation of girls like me will have to suffer through twelve years of repressing their identity to keep themselves safe.
As election season approaches, be mindful of the typical talking points raised as these battles for the control of schools unfold — fear-mongering around “Critical Race Theory, “attacks on trans students disguised as a desire to protect sports, pushback against collective bargaining for teachers, and the floating of ideas for increased resources going to charter school programs — and be ready to oppose them. Virginia can’t afford to take two steps back when we’ve just started to take one forward. We can’t afford the Koch network in our public schools.