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How Dark Money Shaped The School Safety Debate

To get America back to work and boost profits, the Koch network and other right-wing money groups have long pushed to return to pre-pandemic schooling.
How Dark Money Shaped The School Safety Debate
(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Editor’s note: This article was written in collaboration with the Center for Media and Democracy.

At the end of last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidance on wearing masks, significantly easing recommendations for most of the country, including in schools. In response to the CDC’s new rules, many blue states that still mandated masks in schools announced they would end the requirement, including New York, California, Oregon, and Washington. Now, the only state not planning to end its school mask mandate by mid-march is Hawaii.

The development may have been confusing for parents of schoolchildren, since the American Academy of Pediatrics and the president of the American Medical Association continue to recommend masking in schools — and a week before the CDC’s announcement, the agency’s director had said the CDC had no immediate plans to update its guidance. Polls have shown strong support for school mask mandates, and in January, teachers and students all over the country led demonstrations calling for even stronger COVID safety protocols. Strong opinions on the issue and conflicting directives put further pressure on the country’s already overwhelmed teaching staff. A recent survey of U.S. teachers found that more than half were on the brink of leaving their jobs over pandemic stress.

Even more worrisome for many parents and teachers: Last week, new data revealed the Pfizer vaccine, the only option approved for children ages 5 to 11, protected against hospitalization but offered almost no protection against infection for this age group.

The updated CDC guidance signals the Democratic party’s shift from beating the virus to surrendering to it as a fact of life — including in schools. The new approach was likely shaped by a number of factors, including declining COVID numbers, concerns about far-reaching public COVID fatigue, and the fact that many of those now most at risk of severe disease have refused to get vaccinated for non-medical reasons.

But the end of school masking is also in part due to a campaign by right-wing business interests, including the dark money network of oil billionaire Charles Koch, to keep the country open for the sake of maintaining corporate profits. These interests have been meddling in the education debate, first pushing to reopen schools and then fighting in-school safety measures, even as COVID case numbers were rising and children were ending up in hospitals. For nearly two years, these groups have been promoting questionable science and creating wedges between parents, teachers, and administrators in order to get America back to work — even at the risk of the nation’s children.

“Tapping Into The Full Productive Capacity Of The Workforce”

When the pandemic first hit the U.S. in the spring of 2020, Koch-affiliated groups saw an opportunity to reassess American education, moving away from public schools to private and homeschool alternatives. Koch and his brother David, who died in 2019, had spent decades fighting teachers’ unions, pushing school privatization, and attacking state education funding.

On March 13, 2020, Yes Every Kid — a front group founded by the Koch network in 2019 as part of a larger effort to shape K-12 education in the states — launched a #LearnEverywhere campaign promoting remote learning and homeschooling. Three days later, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank co-founded and heavily subsidized by Koch, published a commentary declaring that the U.S. could “tap into” charter, private, and homeschooling “if brick-and-​mortar schooling is substantially disrupted.”

The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing nonprofit heavily funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute, also published articles in March 2020 in favor of using public school funds to pay parents to homeschool their kids. Heritage senior policy analyst Jonathan Butcher wrote a policy brief for the Koch-founded-and-funded Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank based at George Mason University, calling to funnel state funds into for-profit charter school companies providing virtual learning.

The message was blasted out by other groups in Koch’s orbit, including his flagship political advocacy outfit, Americans For Prosperity (AFP); the Independent Women’s Forum, a dark money group bankrolled by Koch organizations and the heirs to the Walmart fortune; and the State Policy Network, a web of libertarian state-based policy organizations.

But within a few months, the school narrative out of Koch world began to shift, coinciding with growing concerns about labor shortages and changing workplace dynamics caused by nationwide school closures. According to Education Week, a staggering 55.1 million students were impacted by the closures at their peak.

The closures meant a loss of childcare for many parents, which contributed to plummeting labor force participation early in the pandemic. An April 2020 guide to school reopenings from the consultancy McKinsey & Co., whose clients include many of the world’s largest companies, estimated that 27 million Americans were dependent upon childcare in order to work.

“Where a significant proportion of workers rely on schools for childcare, reopening schools (at least for younger children) might be a prerequisite to tapping into the full productive capacity of the workforce,” the report noted.

The tight labor market changed the relationship between employers and their workers, who began demanding more flexibility and better work-life balance. Companies were forced to respond by raising wages — albeit inadequately — in order to attract workers.

Enterprises like Koch’s were eager to force a return to the old paradigm. These interests had already begun employing the same think tanks and quasi-academic networks they had pioneered a decade before promoting the anti-government Tea Party movement to fuel and legitimize attacks on pandemic safety measures, so they could force a return to normalcy and boost corporate profits.

Now, these interests began to use the same playbook to try to force schools back to normal.

“Keeping Children At Home Might Expose Them To Considerable Risks”

The very groups that had celebrated remote learning as an opportunity for public school alternatives began demanding that schools reopen, citing concerns about learning loss as well as student mental health. These groups downplayed the risks of the virus and slammed teachers’ unions for holding up the return to normalcy.

In May 2020, two months after the World Health Organization declared COVID a global pandemic, the Hoover Institution, a right-wing think tank based at Stanford University that has received substantial backing from Koch over the years, held a virtual conference at which senior fellow Eric Hanushek argued that remote learning was causing learning loss among low-resourced students and damaging “teacher accountability” through the elimination of standardized testing.

The Koch-affiliated right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), meanwhile, published a “blueprint” for reopening schools, citing the need to get parents back to work. The State Policy Network and its affiliates also started pushing for school reopening.

The Koch-backed reopening push kicked into high gear after President Donald Trump, facing reelection and a slowing labor market recovery, tweeted in early July 2020, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN” in the fall.

Two days after Trump’s tweet, Yes Every Kid published a playbook for reopening schools. Soon after that, Hoover senior fellow Scott Atlas, a radiologist who Trump would soon tap as his senior COVID advisor, called for reopening schools in an interview published that same day. Atlas argued that schools were an “essential business” and that the risk COVID presented to anyone under the age of 18 was incredibly low.

A few days later, the Heritage Foundation joined in, claiming in an online article that in-person learning was possibly “one of the safest activities the nation can restart,” and that “keeping children at home might expose them to considerable risks to their educational progress, their mental health, their nutrition, and alarmingly, even their safety and welfare.”

The next day, the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) began attacking home-based learning as well. The Koch-backed libertarian think tank began by publishing a piece warning that there could be “unintended consequences” of school closures that “will be far more severe than the problem it seeks to address.” Later that fall, the institute would gain notoriety for helping to produce the Great Barrington Declaration, a document calling on governments to pursue herd immunity to COVID through “natural infection” while implementing only nebulous “focused protection” for the vulnerable.

The drumbeat to return to in-person schooling continued throughout the summer and into the fall. Koch’s flagship group, AFP, put out an online recruiting call for people to reach out to Kansas state legislators and urge them to give school districts and schools the “flexibility” to reopen. A week later, the Mercatus Center published a policy brief warning of “educational scarring” if schools remain closed. Mercatus would later start funding the work of Brown University economics professor and parenting blogger Emily Oster after she began publishing controversial research and articles supporting school reopenings and downplaying concerns about children and COVID.

On August 12, 2020, the Independent Women’s Forum called on schools to reopen across the country, citing detrimental impacts on student learning and mental well-being. And in October 2020, Hoover’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes released a study estimating that in spring 2020, students lost 57 to 183 days of learning in reading and 136 to 232 days of learning in math.

Big industry groups also fought school closures, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s premier corporate lobby group. In September 2021, Chamber executive vice president and chief policy officer Neil Bradley said that “we have to have the schools fully reopen” in order to help solve the labor shortage.

“The Dangers Of Masks”

As schools started reopening under the new Democratic administration, Koch-affiliated groups adopted a harder line. In the lead-up to the 2021 state elections, the organizations began opposing in-school mask requirements for students and teachers in addition to closures.

Observers say business interests likely saw masks as a damper on the return to pre-pandemic economic normalcy, given that they are a reminder of the ongoing public health crisis. Although the economy was recovering in 2021, it would still fall short of pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, in terms of the number of workers and jobs. As of January 2022, the economy had 4.4 million fewer jobs and 2.7 million fewer workers.

“Policies about COVID in schools have often been at the vanguard of the push to reopen society more broadly,” said social epidemiologist Justin Feldman of Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. “Removing school mask requirements (with the end of quarantine and isolation likely to follow) can be seen as yet another push to get people to accept the status quo.”

AIER, the think tank behind the Great Barrington Declaration, was one of the first to sound the alarm, warning in an April 2021 anti-mask article: “We are in uncharted territory and especially so with the possible implications for our children.”

The Independent Women’s Forum, meanwhile, began circulating a form letter for parents to send to their school boards, calling for an end to school mask mandates, citing the potential of masks to increase anxiety and depression, stunt socialization and communication, cause headaches and rashes, and promote tooth decay. Then, in October, Koch’s AFP threw its weight behind Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race, who had made school reopening and ending masking central to his campaign. AFP spent $950,000 to boost Youngkin — far more than any other outside spending group.

At the same time, some of these groups began working to quash potential lawsuits related to the removal of COVID mitigation efforts. Not long after the new president’s inauguration, AFP put out a list of proposals to end the pandemic, which included providing schools with liability protections as part of a larger effort to get Americans back to work. Heritage Foundation’s lobbying arm, meanwhile, lobbied Congress on the Open Schools Responsibly Act, a GOP bill to give schools liability protections related to the contraction and transmission of COVID.

This winter, as the Omicron variant spurred surging case numbers and threatened to once again prompt school closures, business-aligned groups redoubled their efforts. In the fourth quarter of 2021, the Chamber lobbied on conservative Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert’s No Mask Mandates Act, a bill that would ban mask mandates nationwide.

And in early January, the Cato Institute and another libertarian think tank affiliated with the State Policy Network, the Foundation for Economic Education, put out a commentary predicting closing schools and other mitigation measures would drive parents to public school alternatives. According to the article, “it’s up to parents to ensure their children have the normal and free childhood they deserve.”

Weeks later, with child COVID hospitalizations surging, Cato claimed the Omicron-related school closures were politically motivated and the fault of teachers’ unions.

Soon after, The Federalist, a conservative online magazine that has received funding from the Koch-backed dark money fund DonorsTrust, published a commentary arguing that parents should pull their children out of public schools to protest mask mandates, quarantines, and other perceived affronts to personal freedom.

“If the parents wanted to be truly effective — as well as truly honest — they would pull their children from schools en masse until problems of such serious magnitude were resolved favorably,” wrote Federalist executive editor Joy Pullman, a graduate of the Koch-funded conservative Christian institution Hillsdale College. “Sickouts and mass protests are highly effective forms of warfare on children waged by teachers [sic] unions all the time.”

The Brownstone Institute, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit founded in May 2021 by former AIER editorial director and former content director for the Foundation for Economic Education Jeffrey Tucker, has been attacking masking in schools at least since October 2021. The group, which bills itself as the “spiritual child” of the Great Barrington Declaration, has claimed masks do not work, could help the virus spread more, may cause brain fog, and harm children — particularly those with disabilities.

Meanwhile, Koch groups and their affiliates have also quietly worked to support grassroots efforts to end mask mandates.

The Maine Policy Institute put up a petition on its website opposing mask mandates in schools, arguing that “many parents are uncomfortable with their children being required to wear masks in schools” and that “families deserve a choice.” The Federalist helped promote a lawsuit against Indiana state officials over school mitigation measures brought by parents who erroneously claimed COVID wasn’t infectious in children.

The Koch network also has ties to the shadowy nonprofit Parents Defending Education (PDE). Founded in early 2021, PDE promotes private schooling and combats liberal “indoctrination” in public schools around the country, often by ginning up anger at school boards. The nonprofit’s vice president, Astra Nomani, as well as its director of outreach, Erika Sanzi, have been vocal critics of school mask mandates, and the organization keeps a directory of conservative parents groups that support ending such mandates and other conservative causes.

“Some Kids Get Better And Some Kids Go To The ICU”

Despite the hand-wringing of masking opponents, there is scant evidence that masks and other in-school safety measures harm children. While research is limited, what little there is suggests that masks do not impair children’s ability to read emotion, learn to speak, or breathe, nor do they cause psychological harm. The only student group shown to potentially have difficulty with wearing masks are children with special needs.

“While potential risks and benefits have been postulated, the most likely scenario is that masking during outings or school sessions will have a minimal impact on childhood development,” said child and adolescent psychiatrist Tyler Black, medical director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency Department at British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, who has long been a vocal critic of mental health justifications for easing pandemic protections.

Many pediatricians are alarmed at the end of school mask mandates.

“It’s sort of surprising to us that people want to remove some of these layered protection measures that we know work,” said veteran pediatric emergency physician Christina Johns, senior medical advisor and vice president of communications for PM Pediatrics, the country’s largest provider of specialized pediatric urgent care.

Johns said she has “not seen anything in [her] practice or the evidence that indicates that there are significant untoward learning effects from mask-wearing.” She adds that the prevalence of conspiracy theories and distrust of experts has “broken [her] spirit.”

Kansas-based pediatrician Natasha Burgert shares Johns’ concerns about abandoning masks and other safety measures. “You can’t just drop one of the cheapest, easiest, and quite honestly — at the larger scale — probably one of the most effective measures when you’re talking about the volume of schoolchildren that it’s protecting,” she said.

Burgert said she supports in-person learning with proper mitigations and remote options. She could even see dropping masks provided other measures are in place, like high-efficiency particulate air filtration in every classroom and regular pool testing, in which samples from multiple people are tested as a group, increasing efficiency and volume. However, she noted that in most cases, private schools are the only operations with the resources to pull off such efforts.

In the meantime, Burgert said she worries about the impacts of leaving so many children unprotected against a virus about which much is still unknown.

“Some kids get better and some kids go to the ICU, and we can’t predict that,” Burgert lamented. “And that’s freaking scary, as a provider when a kid comes to you and looks at you, and it’s like, am I gonna be okay?”

“We Were Dealing With A Monster”

The business-backed school normalcy campaign has proven to be remarkably successful. The CDC’s recent about-face on masks followed weeks of pressure from media declaring it was time to return to pre-pandemic schooling. In January, outlets like The Atlantic, New York Times, and Washington Post published op-eds calling to end school masking requirements. Cable news contributors joined in as well, like physician Leana Wen, who declared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that “the science has changed.”

Today, the overwhelming majority of schools in the U.S. are open and most states do not require masks, regardless of vaccination status. Seven states have banned school mask mandates altogether.

Democrats have taken a serious political hit as school COVID safety measures have become a wedge issue. As of late January, the party faced a double-digit voter enthusiasm gap. Republicans have successfully positioned themselves as the anti-mandate, anti-school closure party, and Democratic governors have reacted by easing masking requirements.

Further complicating the issue is the increasing radicalization of opponents of school safety protocols. School boards around the country have reported receiving threats over mask requirements and school curricula.

A recent internal poll from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party committee that elects House candidates, found that Republican attacks over Democrats’ pandemic management have “alarming credibility.” According to the poll, 57 percent of voters in competitive districts agreed with the statement that “Democrats in Congress have taken things too far in their pandemic response,” while 66 percent of self-defined “swing” voters in competitive districts agreed.

But many parents aren’t willing to expose their children to COVID without basic protections. That includes Kim Hough, a mother of a sixth-grader and a third-grader in Brevard County, Florida. Last October, to fight back against efforts to end local school mask mandates, Hough and other concerned parents formed the Families for Safe Schools. “We just wanted our kids to be protected from getting sick, and being able to go to school at the same time,” she said.

Families for Safe Schools began as a response to an anti-masking organization called Moms For Liberty (MFL) — a conservative dark money group that now has chapters across the country. In May, MFL partnered with the Koch-connected shadow group Parents Defending Education, and MFL’s website directs parents to the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation as well as the Leadership Institute, a Virginia-based training organization for young conservatives that is also an associate member of the Koch-backed State Policy Network. MFL’s website also links to former Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s legal group, America First Legal.

From MFL’s high-profile activity — public appearances with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), coverage on major conservative media outlets, and its rapid national rise — Hough has come to believe the organization has significant funding from big-money interests.

“It started to become very apparent that as quickly as they were able to mobilize and get pushed out into all these states in the country, we were dealing with a monster,” she said. “It’s a well-oiled machine.”

Despite the powerful opposition, Hough isn’t giving up. She is now running for a seat on her county school board to counter what she sees as an effort to undermine public education and indoctrinate children into a destructive ideology.

“I really feel like we’re on the precipice of a changed nation, and not in a good way,” she said. “Everything we’ve worked for as a country to get to where we are right now for the last 70-ish years, we’re literally going to lose it.”


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