Why North Carolina needs state leaders, not the Koch brothers, to save public education

Why North Carolina needs state leaders, not the Koch brothers, to save public education

Charles and David Koch – Image: www.thinkprogress.org

Public education advocates in North Carolina are ablaze these days, after a report from The Washington Post in late January teased a nebulous plan hatched by the conservative Koch network to spend boatloads of cash on a massive, as-yet-unnamed, K-12 initiative in five states.

If North Carolina is one of the five, state leaders and the Kochs are mum, even as Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson promises a “big” announcement later this month with business leaders.

Speculation abounds, even if Johnson’s announcement has nothing to do with the Kochs. Ramp up the anticipation, or anxiety, depending on where you stand.

The Kochs’ goal? According to The Post, it’s to transform “failing schools,” whatever that means. We can guess of course, although the brainstorming is sure to cause more heartburn for public school backers. The network’s co-founder, billionaire industrialist inheritor David Koch, once campaigned for vice president on a libertarian platform to, among other things, abolish public schools.

Gulp.

And for more than a decade, David and his brother, Charles, spent millions to immolate American teacher unions and bolster school choice initiatives at the expense of traditional schools, even if last month’s three-day Koch summit at a luxury resort in California’s Coachella Valley struck a kinder, gentler – and impressively condescending – tone toward educators.

“The teachers who have expressed frustration in the past several months are good people,” Koch network Chairman Brian Hooks said. “I mean, they’re teachers. We all remember the positive impact that a teacher or several teachers have had on our lives. They’re expressing legitimate concerns. But the current approach means that nobody wins, so they need better options.”

Here come the white hats, but if the white hats tied us to the railroad tracks in the first place, don’t expect gratitude.

No one knows whether the Kochs aim to build or to destroy. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the country’s most influential teacher unions, acknowledged it would be a “pivot” for the Kochs if they intended to truly work with teachers and two decades of brimming antipathy for teachers gave way to wan collegiality.

But the prospect of a Koch foray in North Carolina has teachers and public school supporters roiled just the same.

It’s just the sort of public-private, right-wing initiative – cryptic though it may be – that’s near and dear to Johnson. Too often, the conservative superintendent is a lion on school choice and a mouse on the state legislature’s peevish school funding cuts, even if Johnson was elected to serve all of North Carolina’s 1.5 million students, and not simply the 200,000 or so enrolled in private schools and charters.

North Carolina is more than chum for carnivorous school choice initiatives, not that you would know by the actions of the General Assembly.

A 2011 vote by state lawmakers to lift the cap on charters predictably ignited a feeding frenzy, one that’s drained traditional school coffers more than it’s inspired with the promised “laboratories of innovation.”

The state’s billowing private school voucher program grows by $10 million every year, seemingly immune to any fair assessment of its successes or shortcomings.

North Carolina is one of just five states to germinate education savings accounts, a plan to divert traditional school dollars into private accounts for parents who pull their children from public schools, the Trump-endorsed “next wave” of school choice.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans in Raleigh struggle to agree on how they will pay for $1-2 billion in school infrastructure improvements over the next decade, when a nonpartisan report three years ago put the state’s K-12 building necessities at $8 billion. There’s nothing squishy about the need, only our leaders’ willingness to pay for it.

And while state lawmakers – pressured by angry teachers and those who support them, without a whiff of condescension – heeded the call for pay raises, there’s no amount of political spin that can mask the decline in inflation-adjusted, education funding in North Carolina over the last decade.

It’s a decline that’s pulverized North Carolina’s ability to recruit top teachers and administrators, and pauperized funding for textbooks, teaching assistants, school support services, and more.

What more could the Kochs – unapologetic garroters of public education – want from a legacy project than they’ve already received tenfold from North Carolina? No need for a Koch foray in North Carolina. Their green thumb is all over the state’s well-funded, school choice bloom.

No, the rescue mission should be piloted by those in Raleigh, by legislative leadership that venerates billion-dollar cuts to corporate tax rates and high-income earners over North Carolina schools.

No, neither the Kochs nor any big-dollar philanthropists can or should bankroll North Carolina’s constitutional obligation to fund public education.

But there’s no mistaking the cozy reception they’d receive from North Carolina lawmakers if their latest pet project lands in Raleigh. “How could anyone who supports public schools turn down a multi-million dollar investment?” they will say.

Public school supporters want teachers and administrators to be supported and, yes, paid appropriately. Public school supporters want fair funding for local schools, whether the tax base is feast or famine. Public school supporters want “wrap-around services” – mental health professionals, school nurses, counselors – for students whose health and well-being require more than they may find in an eight-hour school day.

But perhaps most of all, public school supporters want school funding without the strings, without an attachment to an unsolicited, ideological agenda.

North Carolina wants the Koch dollars, but not the Koch ego.