How Right-wing Billionaires Seek to Shape the Social Studies Curriculum
By Bill Bigelow
This month in Boston, thousands of teachers will gather for the annual National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference.
Two non-teachers will be there, too: Charles and David Koch, the notorious right-wing billionaires.
Well, the Kochs won’t be there in person, but they will be represented by a Koch-funded and controlled organization: the Arlington, Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute. For years, the Bill of Rights Institute has shown up at NCSS conferences to offer curriculum workshops, distribute teaching materials, and collect the names of interested educators. What the Bill of Rights Institute representatives fail to mention when they speak with teachers is that they have been the conduit for millions of dollars from Charles and David Koch, as the brothers seek to influence the country’s social studies curriculum. (When I attended a Bill of Rights Institute workshop at an NCSS conference, I asked the presenter who funds their organization. “Donations,” she replied.)
With assets of more than $80 billion, the Koch brothers, who control Koch Industries, are together richer than Bill Gates. As a recent Rolling Stone exposé (“Inside the Koch Brothers’ Toxic Empire”) by investigative reporter Tim Dickinson details, the Kochs made that money largely by polluting the Earth and heating up the climate, with massive oil and gas holdings. And through their network of far right foundations and front groups, they lobby for policies and fund politicians in line with their free market, fossil fuel interests.
One of those front groups is the Bill of Rights Institute, launched in 1999 and funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, and David Koch. The BRI directors include Mark Humphrey, Koch Industries senior vice president; Ryan Stowers, director of higher education programs at the Charles Koch Foundation; and Todd Zywicki, a senior scholar of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, funded with corporate donations from the likes of Koch and ExxonMobil. Until 2013, the Bill of Rights Institute president was the Koch operative Tony Woodlief, who headed the Market-Based Management Institute in the Kochs’ hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and served as president of the Mercatus Center.
The Bill of Rights Institute says it offers “engaging educational games, videos, and activities for people of all ages, and classroom lesson plans for teachers across the country.” The institute holds essay contests for students and promotes free teacher seminars throughout the United States—on topics like “Being an American,” “Preserving the Bill of Rights,” and “Heroes and Villains: The Quest for Civic Virtue.” Their promotional materials boast that the BRI has offered sessions for 18,000 teachers and provided materials for another 40,000.
In its materials for teachers and students, the Bill of Rights Institute cherry-picks the Constitution, history, and current events to hammer home its libertarian message that the owners of private property should be free to manage their wealth as they see fit. As one Bill of Rights lesson insists, “The Founders considered industry and property rights critical to the happiness of society.” This message that individual owners of property are the source of social good, their property sacred, and government the source of danger weaves through the entire Koch curriculum, sometimes with sophistication, other times in caricature. For example, in one “click-and-explore” activity at the BRI website, showing the many ways that government can oppress individuals—“Life Without the Bill of Rights?”—a cartoon character pops up with a dialogue bubble reading, “The gov’t took my home!” An illustration shows his home demolished.
Educator resources for “Documents of Freedom” at the BRI site underscore this business-good/government-bad message: “When government officials can make any laws they please—and hold themselves above the law—there is less economic growth, less creativity, and less happiness. Entrepreneurs won’t be willing to risk time and money starting businesses. Writers and speakers will restrain their words. Everyone will worry that his freedoms can be destroyed at the whim of a powerful government agent.”
However, the materials at the Bill of Rights Institute avoid discussing how the free exercise of property rights has played out in the real world—especially with respect to historically oppressed groups.
For example, the BRI introduces a Constitution Day lesson plan with a quote from Patrick Henry—you know, the fellow who said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” As a Virginia plantation owner, Henry denied his beloved liberty to the more than 70 individuals he enslaved on his 10,000-acre estate. Instead of focusing on the contradiction of “freedom loving” individuals like Henry enslaving other human beings, the institute selects a passage from him that warns of the evils of big government: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government—lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” The BRI is fond of this quote, which features prominently in one of the webinars at its website.
In reviewing curriculum and background materials at the institute’s website, I found nothing that could help teachers show students how race and social class shaped the U.S. Constitution—nothing that invites students to think about the Constitution from the point of view of anyone other than the elites who drafted it. A background article on how the Founders approached slavery says that this “would be a ‘make-or-break’ matter for the new republic,” but ignores those for whom slavery was the ultimate “make-or-break” issue: the enslaved people themselves.
Another Constitution lesson at its website, “Meeting the Framers—A Reunion Social in 1840,” is more hagiography than history. The lesson asks students to make business cards for the Framers attending the Constitutional Convention that they can distribute to one another at a fictional 1840 gathering. Students are required to list Framers’ contributions, “most noteworthy characteristics/interesting facts,” and contributions following the convention. There is not a single critical question raised. This lesson highlights another feature of Bill of Rights materials: They’re boring. A curriculum that tiptoes around real-world issues like race, class, and power is unlikely to fire students to life. An alternative lesson would be a Constitutional gathering that included individuals other than plantation owners, bankers, and merchants—one that examined issues from the perspective of common farmers, debtors, and people who were enslaved.
Focusing narrowly on property rights to the exclusion of racism and issues of social inequality are not limited to history lessons in the BRI materials. One section on the website is “Teaching with Current Events,” and includes a lesson, “Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine Laws.” It offers quiet cover for Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, mentioned in the lesson’s introduction. Here’s the lesson’s first discussion question: “Florida’s ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ law states ‘A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.’ How would you put this law in your own words?”
A follow-up question asks students to search the Constitution and Bill of Rights to support this law. But nothing in the lesson encourages students to search their own lives or to view Stand-Your-Ground from the standpoint of people who might be victimized by someone like George Zimmerman. The sanctity of an individual’s property is paramount—here and everywhere in the BRI materials.
This lesson is especially disingenuous given that Florida’s “Stand-Your-Ground” law was a product of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council—a Koch-funded outfit that promotes “model” conservative legislation. The Kochs not only pay for laws to be written and passed, they now pay for them to be legitimated in the school curriculum as well.
The “Current Events” subject that should be at the top of any school curriculum these days is climate change. But the BRI appears to want to avoid the issue. Dickinson’s Rolling Stone exposé chronicles the Kochs’ massive fossil fuel holdings and climate pollution. The Koch empire generates more greenhouse gases annually—24 million metric tons—than either Chevron or Shell. The Kochs own 1.1 million acres in the Alberta oil fields (tar sands land), an area larger than Rhode Island. And the Kochs are “a key player in the fracking boom,” polluting precious water supplies, and releasing unknown quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The BRI is one of the Kochs’ phalanx of organizations promoting the free market snake oil that economic decisions should be left up to the people who own the economy. This ideology offers implicit approval for the fossil fuel industry to do whatever it wants with its massive lode of carbon—even as greenhouse gases rise to a level that puts all life at risk. I say implicit approval because even the “Current Events” curriculum materials at the BRI website are entirely silent about the climate crisis. A search for “global warming,” “climate change,” and “fracking” yields a “Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.”
A July 2014 investigative article in the Huffington Post, “Koch High: How the Koch Brothers Are Buying Their Way into the Minds of Public School Students,” by Joy Resmovits and Christina Wilkie, describes another Koch organization that targets public schools, Youth Entrepreneurs. According to internal documents uncovered by the authors, the group’s mission is to develop “a high school free market and liberty-based course” supported by the network of Koch foundations and Koch-supported organizations. According to these private documents, a 2009 Charles Koch Foundation working group, overseen by former Bill of Rights Institute president Tony Woodlief, worked to produce an economics curriculum to challenge what the group identified as “common economic fallacies,” including: “Rich get richer at the expense of the poor … Government wealth transfer programs help the poor … Private industry incapable of doing functions that public sector has always done … Unions protect employees … Minimum wage, ‘living wage,’ laws are good for people/society … Capitalist societies provide an environment for greed and materialism to flourish.”
Of course, this is the ideology of the Tea Party. According to Youth Entrepreneurs, its curriculum is now taught in 36 high schools in Kansas and Missouri. Resmovits and Wilkie sum up: “Youth Entrepreneurs is just one piece of the Kochs’ slow creep into America’s schools.”
But what makes the Koch brothers’ focus on public schools so profoundly cynical is that they hate public schools. As Resmovits and Wilkie point out, this can be traced back at least as far as 1980, when David Koch was the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee. The Libertarian platform that year was unambiguous: “We advocate the complete separation of education and state. Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”
Even as it infiltrates public schools, the BRI continues to trash the very idea of public education. Its website features a video of a talk by Fox News commentator John Stossel, who spoke at a dinner honoring student winners of a BRI essay contest. Stossel was blunt: “K through 12 education in America is lousy. And I say it’s because you don’t have the free market. A free market is what brings us all the good stuff that makes our life better. And education, K through 12, is largely a government monopoly. And they don’t do things very well. …. Forty years of reporting have taught me that the market does everything better.”
This Koch-sponsored hostility to public schools finds expression in what Koch brothers’ darling Gov. Scott Walker has done in Wisconsin, along with fellow Republicans. Walker has received lavish funding from the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity. As Bob Peterson summarizes in a forthcoming article in Rethinking Schools magazine, Walker’s 2011 Act 10 first took away virtually all collective bargaining rights from public employees, including the right to arbitration. Immediately following Act 10, Wisconsin initiated the largest cuts to public education in the country. Walker and cronies then expanded a statewide school voucher program—one that steals money from public schools to subsidize private schools—and enacted an income tax deduction for private school tuition.
Over at the Koch family foundations, they explain that these budget cuts make the BRI and their other education work even more necessary: “As budgets for liberal arts and social studies continue to shrink, BRI provides much needed instructional materials and conducts programs that teach the words and ideas of our Founders and the liberties and freedoms guaranteed in our Founding documents.” In other words, as the Kochs spend millions undermining and defunding public schools, impoverished schools will become more and more dependent on the millions that the Kochs spend to shape the curriculum.
The liberties that the Kochs are so fond of include the liberty to endlessly pollute the environment, the liberty to emit greenhouse gases without regulation, the liberty to bust unions, and the liberty to contribute unlimited amounts of money to candidates who will do their bidding.
Teachers and parents need to ensure that the public school curriculum is animated by a concern for the public—and that it does not promote a vision of society that offers freedom only to those who have the wealth to buy it. Perhaps when teachers gather in Boston for the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference, they will tell the Bill of Rights Institute representatives what they think of this ersatz version of freedom.
Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. He co-edited the just-released A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.
This article is part of the Zinn Education Project If We Knew Our History series.