Saturday, July 13, 2019

The New Koch Ed Reform Rebranding Astroturducken

The billionaire Charles Koch has launched another adventure in astroturf, this time aimed at rebranding ed reform while still pushing reformy ideas, playing the reform greatest hits and-- well, it's a little unclear what else is going on. But every layer is more special than the last.

This has been coming for a while. Back in January Koch announced that they were going to  increase their level of meddling involvement with K-12 causes. You may have caught an inkling back at the end of June when EdWeek noted that the Kochs were going to team up with the Waltons to throw a pile of money-- a great big honking pile of money-- at incubating schools, programs and what-have-them across the country. In that same article, EdWeek noted the creation of Yes Every Kid, "a group that intends to find common ground between groups that typically have disagreed vehemently over issues such as labor protections and school funding." It's a social-welfare organization, which means it can lobby and work on political campaigns and ballot measures.

Looks totally real

This week, AP's Sally Ho put out a very widely reprinted story that looks at Yes Every Kid in more detail, and those details seem like a grab bag of all the best reform details, right up to the use of "task" as a verb:

The Yes Every Kid group is tasked with monitoring statehouses where it can be influential on school choice, said Stacy Hock, a Texas philanthropist who is among hundreds of donors each contributing at least $100,000 annually to the Koch network's wide-ranging agenda.

Hock and officials with the Koch network said it's too early to provide specifics about what policies the group is pushing.

"The priority is to go where there is a political appetite to be open to policy change and lean in there," said Hock, who also leads the Texans for Education Opportunity advocacy group that supports charters and other education alternatives.

Texas, West Virginia and Florida are high on their list, apparently. Randi Weingarten calls the whole thing a publicity stunt, saying "To date, the Koch strategy has been to profit from and compete with public schools, while trying to 'defund and defang' anyone who got in their way." Ho also talked to Derrell Bradford of various advocacy groups, including 50CAN, the group that, among other things, wrote an actual book about how to astroturf build advocacy campaigns. Oh, and it turns out Bradford is a board member of YEK as well.

The Koch network is turning to community leaders to help support local priorities, rather than prescribing its own goals, said Derrell Bradford, a Yes Every Kid board member and executive vice president of 50CAN, a school choice advocacy group.

This is the astroturducken. You local folks name your priorities; we will tell you how our preferred program will achieve your priorities, and help you create a groundswell of political noise. Our astroturf stuffed inside your priorities. Astroturf in duck's clothing. Astroturducken.

And Ho put all this in the context of call by Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools) to push charters into suburban and rural areas. Overall, Ho did a pretty good job of laying out the basics of the story. But can we find more? Yes, we can. Fasten your seatbelt as we go down the rabbit hole.

Yes. Every Kid. has a website. It's a beautiful thing, slick and pretty and almost entirely devoid of substantive content. But it has grand education aphorisms out the wazoo. The factory model is old. Building an extraordinary system, for extraordinary kids. One size does not fit all. There is no average. Let's break the mold.

YEK (yes, that's an unfortunate acronym, but as we'll see elsewhere, they use it themselves) has a big streak of affirmation, like the best Marianne Willamson fan.

Let's say yes.
We're done hearing no.
We demand a system that believes in each of us.
We demand a system built to unlock the potential of every kid.
We demand a system that says, "Yes."

I've got chills. Almost makes me forget that the Kochs have been relentless in pursuing a government that says no to as many people as possible.

Along with affirmation, YEK seems to be focused on rebranding education reform entirely.

It's that simple. Instead of saying no. We say yes. We're done with negativity. Education reform has been saying "no" for decades. Saying no to educators, parents, and real solutions. Instead, we say "yes." Yes, every kid can learn. Yes, your ideas matter. Yes, together we can make change. We know that if we wait for change to come down from above, it won't be change in the right direction.

Yes, don't wait for things to come down from above, says this website that has come down from a billionaire who wants to drive the education bus despite his complete lack of educational expertise. But this astroturfery is insistent. "Real change has to start from the ground up. We're here as your resource to facilitate conversation." That might be really moving if the very next sentence weren't "We're here to foster a culture of disruptive innovation," which suggests that these facilitaty listeners already have some answers in mind. Also missing-- an acknowledgement of where all that negativity came from. Here is yet another reformy outfit talking about negatives from the past as if they simply fell from space, instead of saying, "Yeah, that was us. Sorry." And here comes the tell:

We want to hear new ideas, new solutions, and new voices. And it can only happen when we listen to the real stakeholders in education: you.

But who is this "we" and why should stakeholders feel any need or obligation to talk to "we" in the first place? This is the same old rich fauxlanthropist baloney-- we're not only going to vote ourselves a seat at the table, but we're also going to go ahead and give ourselves the seat at the head because, yeah, this is our table now. It's so big and generous of you to agree to listen to us, Sir, but I still haven't heard a reason that we should be talking to you. This is the overarching narrative of decades of modern ed reform-- actual teachers and educators were working long and hard on the problems of education, and a bunch of rich amateurs strolled up and announced, "Good news! We're going to take over this whole conversation now!" Thirty years later we're still all waiting to hear why these guys should be running any part of the show beyond reasons like "I'm rich" and "I want to."

Rant over. The website also let's you tell it what is important you. You can also sign up for the emailing list and agree to start a local yes group with astroturf from your very own home.

So who is the actual we here? This is where it gets a bit more interesting. I signed up for the mailing list and that took me to an address--

yes. every kid.
419 S. Whittaker Street
New Buffalo, MI 49117

That address is apparently a single family dwelling, but that house apparently is occupied by a hair salon (I called the number and the salon's answering machine answered). New Buffalo, Michigan is in the western almost-Chicago part of Michigan. So that part of the whole business is a mystery. I have actually tweeted a question at the Yes. Every Child. twitter account; we'll see if I get an answer.

What's less of a mystery is what we find on the group's Facebook page, where we learn that the chairman of YEK is Meredith Olson. That appears to be this Meredith Olson, whose LinkedIn page lists her as Vice President, Public Affairs at Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC. She's located in Wichita and has been with Koch since 2005, first as Director, Business Development, then Managing Director, Operations, and now five years in the VP spot.  Before that she worked for Shell Oil. Her degrees are mechanical engineering and an MBA.

YEK's launch announcement comes datelined Colorado Springs, with a subheading about being "dedicated to driving a new conversation, new results, and new possibilities" which gets low points for originality. We now have several organizations/websites launched by Very Rich People who are Very Sad that their point of view isn't getting the kind of hearing they'd like, and so they would to start a "new conversation." And it's not that I'm opposed to a new conversation, but the new conversation starter always seem to default quickly to the old conversation where they scold the same old targets and push the same old policies and do the same old Not Listening.

Olson is heavy on the "wholesale reimagination" of education "which requires us to empower and work alongside educators" and I realize that this ends up sounding prickly and mean, but who said you belong alongside educators? I mean, if I showed up at the offices of, sat, Americans for Prosperity or Koch Industries and said, "I think what we need is a fresh new approach to what you're doing, and I'm certainly willing to let you work alongside me to reimagine the whole business," how quickly and how far do you think I would be flying out the front door?

Meanwhile, Olson goes on to say "Together, we stand for the possibility and opportunity to ensure all students rise by receiving a customized education designed to meet their needs." So all that "let's find solutions together" happy talk is just a sales pitch, because YEK has one solution already in mind-- personalized [sic] learning. But this time they're committed to getting teachers, somehow, to buy in (which is all in line with what we first heard in January).

The release PR includes parts of a poll that YEK paid for (conducted by YouGov) that uses some pointed questioning techniques. "Over the past five years, have K-12 school [sic] gotten better or worse?" Nearly half of both public and educators say worse, which might tell us something about ed reform policies, but let's just move on, because the rest of the questions are so delightfully loaded that I'm not even going to talk about the responses:

Should K-12 schools focus on preparing students to do well in college or exposing students to a variety of subjects so they can find their own passion and intellectual path?

Should local K-12 administrators have more or less flexibility to structure their schools in the way they think is best?

Should K-12 teachers help students discover and excel at subjects that matter most to them or ensure their students excel on an education path that is laid out for them? 

Each of these was answered exactly the way you think it was, though only 39% of adults thought administrators should have more flexibility. And here's a lesson in how to massage results. In the press release for the poll, that 39% is called a "plurality," but later, when we're talking about whether student proficiency should be judged by tests  or projects, the 37% who support standardized testing are an "only." The poll is used for the purpose for which it was made-- to argue for personalized [sic] learning.

So in the end, Yes. Every Kid. is, besides being a punctuative pain to include in a sentence, the sane old thing. It's a new conversation in which teachers will be deeply valued and we look forward to working with them to achieve the conclusion that we're already committed to, which is implementing the Next Big Thing in education, which we are sure is going to be awesome even though we have no actual education expertise. Break the mold. No one size fits all. For the students. Now we just have to wait and see if the country fills up with "Yes" groups that say "Yes" to Koch dreams, "Yes" to lobbying for Koch's vision of ed reform, and "Yes" to a big plate full of astroturducken.

I'm waiting to see how that all turns out. But most of all, I want to know what the hair salon has to do with any of this.


  1. The KochVision calls for a screen for every (other person's) child.

    Who needs those expensive human teachers anyhow? /s

  2. Despite the depressing subject matter, I always enjoy your writing so much.