One day into the 2011 General Assembly session and conservatives were celebrating their new power over education. “It’s a joyous week in Raleigh!” Dallas Woodhouse said exultantly. The state director of Americans for Prosperity was busy welcoming his guests, who included Republican legislators, to a reception co-sponsored by AFP-NC and the John William Pope Civitas Institute.

Woodhouse crowed about how the N.C. Association of Educators was suddenly in retreat and then introduced the new House majority leader, Rep. Paul (Skip) Stam of Wake County. “He’s a friend who’s been with us from the beginning on charter schools,” Woodhouse said.

Stam quickly endorsed the AFP’s three charter school “principles”: an unlimited number of charters; no minimum or maximum enrollments at the schools; and a separate licensing commission outside of the State Department of Public Instructioneven though charter schools are ostensibly public schools.

Then Stam turned to his own bill to create tax credits for parents who pay private school tuitions or homeschool their children. Always call them tax credits, he warned, chortling at this chicanery, because the phrase “tax credits” does better in the polls than “private school vouchers.”

Within hours, video of Woodhouse, Stam and Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, who spoke in favor of merit pay for teachers, was posted to The Locker Room, a blog with a conservative bent. The blog is maintained by the John Locke Foundation, an Art Pope-funded think tank in Raleigh.

But what of Art Pope? He was nowhere to be seen.

Present or not, Pope was the star of this show, the evening’s events and cast of characters a virtual playbill of his growing influence over education policy in North Carolina and the tools he’s used to achieve it: Locke, Civitas, AFP, the Republican Partyall beneficiaries of the Pope Foundation or Pope himself.

Indeed, Pope’s self-image may well be reflected in a description of the humble man for whom the Locke Foundation’s “E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders” is named.

E. A. Morris, who headed the giant Blue Bell Corp. in Greensboro, was “one of the founding fathers of the North Carolina conservative movement,” the Locke website relates, “known for his leadership skills in his community and throughout North Carolina. [His] generosity extended to the support of many charitable and philanthropic causes that aid the advancement of the human condition. While he received several accolades for his achievements, he remained unassuming, humbly accepting such praise.”

The Locke website also contains some details about the projects carried out by Morris fellows from the Class of ’09. Bill Gilbert of Raleigh helped promote tea party events in North Carolina in concert with Americans for Prosperity. Dan Soucek ran a “reverse raffle” to raise money for his campaign in the 45th District, in western North Carolina.

Soucek, a Republican, is now in the Senate and, as a member of the education committee, played a role in the passage of Senate Bill 8, the GOP’s charter-school bill. Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, the bill’s chief sponsor, credited Soucek with adding key language to the provision about the licensing commission.

There were no accolades, though, for the man behind the curtain: Art Pope.

As a younger man, Pope was elected to the House from a Raleigh district and served alongside his friend Skip Stam. Pope even captured the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in 1992, losing to Democrat Dennis Wicker. Quiet and introverted, however, Pope wasn’t really cut out to be a frontman. He was appointed to fill a House vacancy in 1999 and served through 2002. Since then, he’s chosen to use the financial assets under his control to build a conservative network of acolytes and elevate them to power.

Nowhere is Pope’s imprint more evident than in education policy. His various organizations have long supported more charter schools, vouchers and cutting funding for traditional schoolsespecially for elaborate facilities, administrators and extracurricular programs. The groups also support merit pay for teachers whose students get the best test results.

More “market competition” from private schools and charter schools, these Pope-backed groups argue, would force the state-run schools to improve or lose studentsand in turn, lose even more of their funding.

In the current budget fight, the John Locke Foundation also supports killing former Gov. Jim Hunt’s Smart Start programs for preschool children and former Gov. Mike Easley’s signature More At Four program for at-risk 4-year-olds. Such programs should be replaced bywhat else?refundable tax credits for private preschool or child care expenses, the foundation argues. Although “for a smaller subset of desperately poor preschoolers who lack functioning parents, the foundation says, a “carefully designed state intervention may be justified.”

Pope says the views expressed by Locke, Civitas and AFP are “not necessarily” the same as his. They have their own diverse staffs, he said, and he doesn’t tell them what to say or write. Sometimes he agrees with them; sometimes he doesn’t.

He did acknowledge, however, that he supports lifting the cap on charter schools and merit pay for teachers, especially math and science teachers. He supports tax credits for private school tuition in general, though he said he hasn’t read Stam’s bill and has no position on it.

Public aid to private schools isn’t always a conservative position, Pope added. Even the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts liberal, was in favor of tuition grants for low-income kids trapped in inner-city schools.

Pope vociferously denied, in fact, being anti-public schools, saying that as a legislator he supported numerous funding increases, including votes for the Excellent Schools Act, the ABCs of Education Law and additional aid to low-wealth counties.

The Pope Foundation doesn’t limit itself to K–12 public education. The foundation also pays the bills, to the tune of some $540,000 a year, for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy to pump out criticism of North Carolina’s public universities.

The center has been arguing for a decade that the UNC system is too big, too costly to taxpayers and that it enrolls too many students unprepared for academic workwho should attend a cheaper community college.

A perennial complaint from the Pope Center is that the UNC faculty, with support from university administrators, indoctrinates students with radical ideas, including “diversity” courses in which the views of women, minority and gay scholars are considered instead those of the great white male thinkers like, say, philosopher John Locke.

In 2004, Pope got into a tussle with UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members over the use of money he was prepared to donate toward a new “Studies in Western Civilization” curriculum. Faculty said he was trying to promote his conservative agenda in their history courses; he denied itand continues to deny it.

Since then, Pope’s donated money to several universitiesalways in response to their request, he saidfor programs such as one at N.C. Central University that brings speakers to the law school and another at N.C. State that brings speakers to its program in law and economics. As Pope described them, the programs have a conservative flavor: U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was among the speakers at N.C. Central, he said, and Vernon Smith, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, spoke at N.C. State.

Pope’s organizations have long maintained that students should pay more of their own way to a UNC education, with taxpayers paying less. In a May 2000 paper, “A New Model for the Financing of Higher Education in North Carolina,” the center’s George Leef contended that UNC tuitions “[have] been held far too low, and notwithstanding the vague injunction in the state constitution to keep the cost of higher education as low as ‘practicable,’ a substantial increase would be good policy.”

(In fact, the state constitution calls for UNC and other public institutions of higher education to be “free of expense” as far as practicable. )

It would be good policy, Leef contended, because many taxpayers “derive no direct benefit” from educating other people’s children. Thus, students or their parents should pay, with exceptions made for the poor.

Moreover, Leef said, the state should give the private schools more moneyin the Legislative Tuition Grant programas a way of tilting the playing field against the public schools.

Eleven years later, Leef’s title at the center is director of research, and he continues to hold the same views, summarized in his biography as “free markets, minimal government, private property, and individual rights.”

And 11 years later, tuitions and fees at UNC campuses are about triple what they were when Leef wrote his paper. In-state undergraduates at UNC-CH, for example, paid $2,365 in 1999–2000, exclusive of room and board. The current rate is $6,840.

Nonetheless, the Pope Center issued a new paper last month again arguing that, “Considerable savings can be achieved by replacing state appropriations with revenue from tuition.”

On the center’s website, however, Jane Shaw, the center’s president and a regular columnist on its Clarion Call blog, took a dim view of giving the UNC system state funds or student tuition increases. “It’s time to ‘starve the beast’limit the amount of money that the university system has to spend so that it will make the right changes,” Shaw wrote.

There’s some irony in the fact that Pope-funded groups complain about too many students in too many UNC institutions while they themselves proliferate: Locke, Civitas, Civitas Action, Pope Center, AFP-NC, Real Jobs NC and the list goes on.

But if their messages are redundant (and they are), the methods of the different Pope-backed groups vary greatly, combining for a kind of tag-team or good cop-bad cop politics that is working in education policy.

The John Locke Foundation is the flagship of the bunch. It’s fashioned as a think tank, with a host of staffers churning out enormous volumes of written and spoken words and TV sound bites for any audience that will listen to them. Its president, smooth-talking John Hood, is especially prolific, attacking big government at every opportunity while assuring us that the right-wing ideas he’s promoting are in no way radical, but simply the next reasonable thing.

For example, Hood wrote recently that liberals are wrong when they fear that “parental choice” (vouchers and charter schools) will destroy the public schoolsso are any conservatives who happily forecast that outcome. The likely result, Hood said, is that a quarter of students will attend charter or private schoolsfar fewer than in other countries which, Hood was pleased to note, spend less tax money (emphasis added) per pupil than the U.S.

Locke’s publications are replete with articles extolling the virtues of this charter school, that homeschooling parent or the next tea party movement (headline from the January issue of its Carolina Journal: “North Carolina Tea Party’s Next Objective? Education Reform”).

Civitas, meanwhile, functions mainly as a training ground for conservative activists, including instruction about political uses of the information supplied by other Pope-backed groups. One of Civitas’ new offerings is to supply state-required training to local school board members. Not surprisingly, Civitas got its first such gig with the Wake County school board after a five-member conservative majority took power following the 2009 elections. Money from the Wake County Republican Party helped elect the conservatives; Pope gave $15,000 to the party, according to campaign finance reports, and advised on its election strategy. Pope, in fact, was called the “architect” of the plan to elect Republicans to the school board by then-party financial chair Marc Scruggs.

Then there’s Americans for Prosperity, a national organization that has an especially active North Carolina chapter, thanks to the Pope Foundation. AFP-NC’s job is grassroots organizing and agitation. AFP-NC State Director Dallas Woodhouse, whose pugnacious personality is 180 degrees removed from John Hood’s, is prone to calling the state teachers association “sworn enemies” of school reform. According to media reports, Woodhouse threatened to punch out a Georgetown University professor (a “moronic professor from some distant school,” Woodhouse complained) who debated him on the radio about the Wake school board’s turn to the right.

On any given day, Woodhouse, Hood, Leef, Shaw, Bob Luebkethe education analyst at Civitasor a multitude of other Pope-paid pundits may appear on your TV screen or in The News & Observer, commenting on education issues. Each supposedly represents a distinct group, a “different” point of view. In fact, they are voices in the Pope chorus.

You may encounter Lindalyn Kakadelis, head of a group called the North Carolina Education Alliance. Kakadelis is a former teacher and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member and one of the founders of a charter school in Charlotte.

Kakadelis counts as a “key achievement” voting as a school board member to end Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school diversity policy, leading to a neighborhood-schools plan that critics say has wrecked Charlotte’s inner-city schoolsshades of Wake County.

Her education alliance isn’t an independent organization, though. Rather, it’s a “project of” the Locke Foundation.

Even groups that are independent, like Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, benefit from the Pope empire’s warm embrace. PEFNC President Darrell Allison says his organization receives no funding from Pope (and the Pope foundation records show none). But when Allison’s group hosted a forum on school choice featuring Milwaukee charter schools guru Howard Fuller recently, John Locke and the other Pope groups lavished it with publicity, helping turn out an audience of 700which made for a positive story in the Carolina Journal: “At Meeting, Charter Struggle Compared to Civil Rights.”

Recently, Art Pope has been attacked by pro-diversity groups in Wake County (“a villain to those who value the public sector and public education, the youth group NC HEAT said) and by the N.C. Association of Educators, which posted a video called “Money & Privatization: A Love Story.” That video accused Pope of supporting the resegregation of Wake’s schools and “anti-public education legislation” in the General Assembly.

And in the House, Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, ripped Senate Bill 8, the charter-school bill, as a radical assault on public education itself. “There have always been critics of public education, as there should be, but their goal has always been to improve public education,” Glazier said. “It seems, however, that the sponsors and the folks behind Senate Bill 8’s answer to public education is to get rid of it and replace it with something that is wholly different and not subject to any democratic participation or control.”

Such attacks infuriate Pope, who insists that parental choice and other elements of the conservative reform agenda will strengthen public education, not cripple it. The political left, he said, want to “attack the messenger” by demonizing him rather than confronting head-on the points he and his fellow conservatives are making.

“Speaking for myself,” Pope said, “I am strongly committed to improving the public schools.”

It also hacks him off, he said, that the media is obsessed with the money he pours into conservative causes, but never looks at progressive organizations and their funding: Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem and moderate business leaders like Jim Goodmon of Capital Broadcasting. Amass all these groups, plus the N.C. Justice Center and the others “on the far left” he said, outspend Pope-funded groups. (According to Philanthropy Journal, the value of two trusts operated by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation totaled $470 million in 2007, but dropped during the recession.)

“A lot of what I have tried to start and initiate,” Pope said in exasperation, “is simply an effort to keep up.”