INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Officials with the powerful political network led by conservative billionaire Charles Koch said Monday that they are promoting a state-level education strategy that they hope educators and teachers unions will support.
The Koch network is launching a new group next month that will focus on 15 million kindergarten through 12th-grade students in five unnamed states, chairman Brian Hooks said.
Hooks didn’t give details on the policy priorities but said the initiative will focus on curriculum, technology and uniting a broad coalition that will include outreach to teachers.
“It includes investments in curriculum to better support teachers and students, new technology to help families find the right options for their kids, and in public policy reforms that begin to get at the root causes and not just the symptoms of the challenges we see in the education system today,” Hooks said.
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The announcement was made during a private retreat for wealthy donors who have committed to giving at least $100,000 annually to the sprawling Koch network of political, policy, educational and philanthropic organizations.
The Koch education effort follows a national educators uprising that began last year over teacher pay and classroom conditions and escalated to major teacher strikes that shut down schools in multiple states. Los Angeles teachers in the nation’s second-largest school district recently reached a deal, and teachers in Denver have plans to strike.
“They’re expressing legitimate concerns, but the current approach means that nobody wins, so they need better options,” Hooks said. “And we see an opportunity to come into this conversation and really shake things up.”
Longtime Koch network donor Frank Baxter, a former charter school executive in California, said he was thrilled the organization was digging into K-12 issues. He said private school scholarships, charter schools and online learning could be important avenues to reform failing schools.
“We’re just beginning to evolve to work on K-12 education and trying to promote good policy but also to again unleash entrepreneurial ideas throughout the community,” said Baxter, who is also a retired banking executive and former U.S. ambassador to Uruguay.
The Koch network said school choice will likely be one of a dozen or more priorities of the new initiative but said it’s too early to discuss its comprehensive policy agenda, which is a work in progress.
Some teachers have in recent years been vocal about rejecting the money and influence of billionaire philanthropists in the education system, especially when it comes to steering public money toward private and charter schools.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the union welcomes genuine interest in public education but that it’s skeptical of the new program because of Koch’s support for anti-union efforts.
“(O)nly time will tell whether the paradigm shift in favor of public schooling is forcing the Kochs to pivot — to work with those they have tried to destroy — or whether this is simply a PR stunt,” Weingarten said in a statement.
Outside education, Hooks said the Koch network will push for permanent legal status for young immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visa. He also noted goals for tackling poverty, criminal justice reform, trade and foreign policy, among other issues.
The meeting held at a luxury resort in the California desert featured seminars revealing the network’s latest work and agenda, as well as elected officials and other influencers.
Follow Sally Ho on Twitter: https://twitter.com/_SallyHo .