Video spotlights Koch brothers' role in N.C. school segregation fight
The role that the conservative billionaire Koch brothers' money has played in an ongoing fight over the re-segregation of public schools in one North Carolina community is the focus of a new video from Brave New Foundation, a progressive media organization based in California.
The 11-minute video (posted below) delves into the controversy in Wake County, N.C., where conservative activists with help from Koch-funded groups organized to bring an end to the public school system's lauded diversity policy. It's the latest installment in Brave New Foundation's "Koch Brothers Exposed" series, which critically examines the political advocacy work of David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, a private energy conglomerate based in Kansas. The Koch family foundations are among the largest sources of funding for the U.S. conservative movement and promote an agenda of education privatization.
"The Koch brothers have more than $42 billion to make public policy out of their anti-government ideology," says Robert Greenwald, founder of Brave New Foundation. "Their assault against public education epitomizes their tactics to remake our nation."
One of the major beneficiaries of the brothers' largesse is Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group founded by the Kochs that has worked closely with the right-wing tea party movement. The Kochs have given over $5 million to date to AFP, which supported the anti-diversity candidates who won the majority of seats in the 2009 Wake school board election. Brave New Foundation points out that the AFP-NC chapter had access to approximately $1 million from 2007 to 2009 -- money critical in laying the groundwork for that election. AFP also supported local groups that advocated for an end to the diversity policy.
[CLARIFICATION: The film does not charge that AFP was involved in any legally questionable activities under campaign finance law, such as direct campaign contributions or ad buys. "We never accused AFP of breaking the law," Brave New Foundation said in a statement it put out in response to a complaint from AFP on this point.]
I'm among those who appear in the film, interviewed because of Facing South's ongoing reporting on the Kochs' and AFP's involvement in North Carolina politics, and on the effort to end the desegregation policy in Wake County's public school system, the largest in North Carolina and 17th largest in the nation.
Wake schools' diversity policy, instituted in 2000, sought to limit the percentage of children in any one school who qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch. Its goal was to prevent a system divided into have and have-not schools and avoid the educational problems related to concentrated poverty -- and, because of the link between poverty and race, also to avoid racial segregation. It did this through a mix of busing and the creation of magnet schools, which are usually located in higher-poverty neighborhoods and offer special programs in order to give students from more affluent areas incentive to attend.
As Facing South has reported, the key link between the Koch network and the Wake County schools is former state Rep. Art Pope (R) of Raleigh, a retail magnate and leading conservative benefactor with extensive ties to the Kochs:
* Pope currently serves as one of four national directors for AFP.
* Pope's own family foundation is the second-largest institutional funder of AFP's sister group, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.
* Pope has been among the guests invited to the the Koch brothers' annual secret gatherings of conservatives.
* Pope has worked in concert with the Koch brothers to cast doubt on the science of global warming, contributing tens of millions of dollars to the same network of climate denial groups.
Getting 'poor' all over them?
Controversy over Wake schools' student assignment policy has simmered as far back as 1976, when the historically majority-white county schools merged with the Raleigh city schools and their large minority population. The merger was proposed by local business leaders who wanted to avoid the problem of "white flight" from the city and the economic problems that brings. But some politicians -- including former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R), a pro-segregationist -- used the busing policy to stir racial resentment and appeal to white voters.
The controversy erupted into a full boil in 2009, when elections were held for four of nine school board seats. Though the board's own survey found that over 94 percent of Wake County parents were satisfied with their children's schools, some in the county's well-to-do suburban areas -- many of them transplants from Northern communities with economically and racially divided school systems -- complained about their children being bused to schools outside their neighborhoods.
Conservatives operating under a strategy crafted by Pope seized the moment to run a slate of Republican candidates opposed to Wake's diversity policy. Pope was the second-biggest individual contributor to the anti-diversity candidates, while the top donor was Robert Luddy -- the operator of a chain of private schools in Wake County who also serves as the chair of the pro-voucher Civitas Institute of Raleigh, which was founded and is largely funded by Pope.
The local chapter of Americans for Prosperity also advocated for an end to the diversity policy, which it called a "destructive race based busing system ridiculously designed as bussing [sic] for socio economic diversity." John Tedesco, one of the GOP anti-diversity candidates, spoke at an AFP showing of "The Cartel," a documentary film critical of public schools. [CLARIFICATION: This speech came after Tedesco was already elected to the board; he now serves as its vice chair.] He also spoke at a Tea Party rally, where he criticized the diversity policy as social engineering. His appearance at the rally was skewered by the satirical comedy show "The Colbert Report" in a segment in which Stephen Colbert asked, "What's the use of living in a gated community if my children go to school and get poor all over them?"
But Pope's political strategy succeeded at the polls, with all five anti-diversity candidates winning a seat. "We came to a gunfight with knives," losing pro-diversity candidate Karen Simon says in the video.
The new Republican board majority wasted no time in voting to scrap the diversity policy, sending some 700 students back to their neighborhood schools for the 2010-11 school year -- a move that disproportionately impacted minority students. The board also hired Pope's Civitas Institute to provide training for school board members.
However, the school board's move triggered a strong reaction from the community, vividly captured in the Brave New Foundation video. Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Raleigh and others were arrested after engaging in civil disobedience at school board meetings. (Among those arrested was Tim Tyson, a Duke University historian and a board member of the nonprofit Institute for Southern Studies, which publishes Facing South.)
The protests also led to the creation of pro-diversity organizations such as the Great Schools in Wake Coalition and the student-led Heroes Emerging Among Teens, or N.C. HEAT. In addition, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, which remains under investigation.
The Brave New Foundation video comes out just as the controversy over the Wake schools assignment policy is about to heat up again, with a new student assignment plan set to be at least partly unveiled to the school board this week by new Superintendent Tony Tata, a conservative former U.S. Army brigadier general and Broad Academy graduate who was hired to replace former Superintendent Del Burns after he resigned in protest over the ending of the diversity policy. The new plan is expected to give parents a choice among several nearby schools, with at least one magnet school and what's being called an "achievement" school -- a higher-performing facility most likely located in a more affluent area of the county.
But the tentative plan, which would take effect for the 2012-13 school year, is already meeting opposition from the hardcore neighborhood schools proponents on the board. Chairman Ron Margiotta -- who also serves as a trustee for one of Robert Luddy's private schools -- told the Raleigh News & Observer that he opposes the achievement school approach, calling it a version of the former policy of sending students from low-performing schools to more distant schools with better records.
Meanwhile, new school board elections are set for Oct. 11. The filing period ended last Friday, with 14 people competing for five seats in districts redrawn earlier this year by the Republican majority. Of the five seats up for grabs, only one is held by a member of the Republican majority, and that's Margiotta's.
Brave New Foundation's partners in the video were the Advancement Project, a civil rights think tank, and People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group. You can watch it in its entirety here: