Conservative Koch Network Disavows Critical Bans on Racial Theory

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – As the conservative political groups are mobilizing to ban what they call critical race theory in schools, a prominent supporter of Republican causes and candidates is notably absent.

Leaders of the network built by the billionaire Koch family say they oppose government bans and efforts to remind school board members about teaching race and history in schools. While they note that they disagree with the ideas at the center of the struggle, they argue that government bans, now enacted in 11 states, stifle debate essential to democracy.

“Using the government to ban ideas, even ones we don’t agree with, is also contrary to basic American principles – principles that contribute to social progress,” said Evan Feinberg, executive director of the Stand Together Foundation. affiliated with Koch.

This position is in keeping with the network’s long-standing libertarian streak. But it sparked new accusations of hypocrisy from critics of the megadonator. After spending years pouring money into conservative groups, Koch groups cannot distance themselves from the movement they helped build, they argue.

“They have this great position that they want to brag about from a public relations standpoint. But their money has gone to these groups which have the opposite effect on this program, ”said Lisa Graves, chair of the board of directors of the liberal watchdog Center for Media and Democracy.

The Koch organization made its position public last spring, as state lawmakers and conservative groups began to pass legislation banning specific concepts in classrooms, including the idea that racism is systemic in society and the American legal system.

The efforts were motivated in part by the backlash from Project 1619, a New York Times Magazine initiative to rethink the role of slavery in the history and development of the nation.

In a letter published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in May, Charlie Ruger, vice president of philanthropy at the Charles Koch Foundation, described the pressure from Republicans to ban these concepts in schools as a gag order on free speech. .

“Learning and research requires an openness to new ideas and the ability to argue productively,” Ruger wrote. “It requires opposing censorship. “

Koch’s political juggernaut – a multi-billion dollar foundation umbrella and political action committee – was built by brothers Charles and David Koch out of the family’s Kansas-based business empire in the 1980s and 1990. Although David Koch passed away in 2018, the network continued to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into organizations and policies that advocate for small government, lower taxes, deregulation. , freedom of expression, academic freedom and a conservative justice system.

The organization’s opposition to racial and educational bans has not stopped the groups it has long supported from fighting. In Wisconsin, parents seeking to recall school board members received help this year from the Wisconsin Institute for Liberty and Law, backed by Koch. The Milwaukee law firm received $ 310,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation for five years until 2019, the last year with public records available and before critical race theory became a GOP rallying point. . The money was in the form of grants to protect free speech on college campuses, a spokesperson for Koch said.

The foundation and the Charles Koch Institute also donated about $ 75,000 over the same period to State Policy Network, a conservative think tank that promoted the bans. However, the grants, also ahead of the 2021 wave of legislation, helped sponsor an annual meeting, internship and business roundtable, Koch’s spokesperson said.

Among the main drivers of legislative bans was another Koch-backed group, the American Legislative Exchange Council. The Chicago-based conservative policy-making group is providing model legislation for conservative lawmakers and has promoted measures to ban critical race theory from schools this year.

The Stand Together Foundation and its related groups contributed $ 2.7 million to CAFTA between 2015 and 2019.

None of this was targeted to limit the schools’ curriculum on history and race, and was awarded before the issue became a Republican priority, Stand Together spokesman Bill Riggs said.

In 2020, the ALEC continued to receive money from two Koch foundations, donations for trade, regulatory and tax policy, as well as for the defense of freedom of expression and the granting of scholarships. , said Riggs.

Riggs did not disclose the 2020 total given. Only contributions up to 2019 can be viewed in tax documents accessible to the public. Contributions for 2020 will not be publicly available until mid-November.

Riggs accused Koch’s critics of a “misinformation game” that suggests the network is secretly supporting a policy it does not support. He noted that Koch Groups give to a wide range of organizations that align with some of the values ​​of its founders, if not all of their views.

The Charles Koch Foundation contributed to the Democrat-leaning Brookings Institution in 2018 and 2019 on foreign policy issues, Riggs said. Last year, the Koch Network helped create Heal America, a faith-based program to fight “racial injustice with love and redemption,” according to its website. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and TV commentator Van Jones, a Democrat, both participated in the events.

Riggs declined to say whether the Koch Network would refuse to contribute to groups supporting the prohibition on teaching critical race theory, such as the CEFTA, noting that it mandates in grant agreements the goal of the money. He also declined to say whether they would rethink support for political candidates who also support politics.

The Koch-backed political action committee Americans for Prosperity Action spent at least $ 9.7 million to support North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis in his tough campaign for reelection to the Senate last year, according to reports of the Federal Election Commission.

Tillis was a major sponsor of a measure this year to ban the use of federal funds to teach Project 1619 in elementary, middle and high schools. The bill did not advance to the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Americans for Prosperity Action’s approvals are based on several factors, including voting records, statements, how they direct key issues, “as well as how they stand out as leaders who can bring people together. to find solutions, ”Riggs said.

“But there is no litmus test problem. We recognize that no one will agree on everything, ”he said.

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