Charles Koch: One of the most polarizing and pivotal men in politics, he’s one half of the billionaire Koch brothers. The sixth-richest person in the world, he co-owns Koch Industries, a multinational conglomerate with key investments in manufacturing and fuels. In 2011, Time magazine ranked him among the most influential people in the world.
A staunch conservative with a soft spot for the tea party, Koch is a deep-pocketed donor who, with his brother, pledged $60 million in campaign spending to defeat Democrats, particularly President Obama, in 2012.
Koch is the reported benefactor behind controversial groups such as Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing attack-ad and policy factory, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes conservative model legislation for state governments, including North Carolina.
Now Koch’s influence has extended into North Carolina’s public schools.
A Senate Education Committee presentation last week from N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson included proposals for curriculum resources in “American History I: The Founding Principles,” a mandatory high school course.
Among the 12 resources Atkinson listed is the Bill of Rights Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit launched by Koch’s charitable foundation that distributes teaching materials such as weekly lesson plans, videos, interactive games, seminars and webinars for history students.
The group’s connection to Koch and its conservative teachings are troubling to some North Carolina Democrats.
“I am very concerned about the idea of somebody who is known to be very political getting involved in how we teach our political history,” says state Rep. Deb McManus, a freshman Democrat from Chatham County and a former local school board member who sits on the House’s Education Committee.
Chris Hill, education and law project director for the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, says political advocacy does not belong in schools.
“I’m concerned when any group would muddle education with politics,” Hill says. “Let the kids figure that out on their own.”
It’s unclear how many school systems are currently using institute resources, which are, aside from some supplementary materials, free. The state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) does not track the acquisition and use of such materials statewide, Atkinson said. Only local school systems would keep such information.
Durham schools don’t distribute institute materials, a spokesman said. Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools have distributed the materials but it is unknown if they were used, according to a spokesman. At press time, Wake County and Orange County school officials could not say if the materials are used.
The institute’s affiliation with North Carolina public schools began at DPI. Atkinson says DPI employees identified the institute’s materials as a potential resource after the Founding Principles Act, passed by the General Assembly in 2011, specified school systems must teach a course on the country’s philosophical origins and its founding fathers.
Former lawmakers Harold Brubaker, an Asheboro Republican and ex-House speaker, and Don Vaughan, a Greensboro Democrat, were the primary sponsors of the legislation, which does not specify where course materials are to be drawn.
Both former lawmakers have ALEC ties. Brubaker was a member of its board of directors. Vaughan stepped down from the organization last May because, according to media reports, he said the group had become “too partisan.”
On its website, the Bill of Rights Institute says Koch launched the nonprofit in 1999 after he saw high school teachers lacked the resources to “develop educational materials on the principles, institutions and ideas upon which our country was founded.”
The group says it has provided materials to more than 2 million students and published 16 curricula for elementary, middle and high schools on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and historical Supreme Court decisions, among other topics.
The institute’s leadership reflects deep ties to Koch as well. Its board of directors includes Mark Humphrey, a senior vice president for Koch Industries, as well as Ryan Stowers, director of higher education programs at Koch’s charitable arm. Institute President Tony Woodlief, who did not return INDY Week phone calls for comment, is also a former Koch foundation member.
Koch exerted his influence in last year’s North Carolina elections. Koch Industries spent $36,000 on the campaigns of powerful GOP leaders such as Gov. Pat McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Jacksonville Republican Harry Brown, a member of the Senate Education Committee. Republican leaders in that committeeco-chairs Dan Soucek and Jerry Tillmandid not return INDY phone calls.
Most concerning to critics, however, is the possibility that institute leaders will shape their lessons with partisan viewpoints. A recent lesson plan on gun rights following the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting in December included questions referencing popular conservative talking points but only briefly noted the central point of pro-gun control argumentsthat limiting access to guns will curb gun violence.
“Some regulations have been criticized as criminalizing the behavior of millions of law-abiding Americans because of the criminal acts of others,” the plan said. “Should laws be based on harm/intended harm, or also on the potential to do harm?”
Other lesson plans take on topics such as gay marriage and health care, with materials on the latter challenging students to question whether President Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul is ultimately constitutional.
State Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, says the institute’s curriculum on key race-related Supreme Court decisions directs students toward cases challenging racial equality rather than the “numerous cases that struck down segregationist practices.” A college teacher, Luebke called their work a “decidedly conservative analysis of the U.S. Constitution.”
Luebke called for state education leaders to ensure all viewpoints are represented. “I would hope that DPI alsomakes available a curriculum that highlights the struggles of racial and ethnic minorities who have successfully persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that race and ethnic discrimination is unconstitutional,” he says.
The institute is, as Atkinson points out, just one of a number of resources listed for the course. Other sources include the nonpartisan California-based Center for Civic Education, the Library of Congress, the N.C. Bar Association and LEARN NC, a base for K–12 lesson plans out of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education.
Atkinson says she watched one video provided by the institute and didn’t believe it offered a biased view. She added that teachers and local school systems can choose whether to incorporate the institute’s work.
“When we are talking about materials to be used in the classroom, we need to make sure that they align with the curriculum, that they do not show biases, and if they do, that there is a counter to that,” Atkinson says.
Critics agree. “It would concern me if they were the Koch brothers or the ACLU,” Hill says. “I just want the kids to actually learn history.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Clear history.”