Kochs take ‘breather’ from politics, launch new education initiative

Posted at 10:33 PM, Jan 28, 2019

The powerful conservative network aligned with billionaire Charles Koch is launching a new organization focused on overhauling K-12 education and will make a renewed push this year to obtain permanent legal status for young undocumented immigrants, Koch officials announced Monday.

The still-unnamed education initiative will operate in five states and affect 15 million students, Brian Hooks, a top Koch lieutenant, told donors on the final day of a three-day retreat at a luxury resort in the California desert.

Koch officials would not identify the states they will target nor the specific objectives of the new initiative, but it comes as the country has been roiled by teacher strikes — most recently a six-day walkout by educators in Los Angeles over pay, class sizes and support services.

Many Koch donors have supported school-choice efforts in their communities, but Hooks cast the new push as avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach. Koch officials described the effort as including a focus on curriculum and technology.

“The teachers who have expressed frustration in the last few months are good people,” Hooks said of striking educators. “They are expressing legitimate concerns, but the current approach means nobody wins.”

“We see an opportunity to come into this conversation and really shake things up,” he added.

Hooks also pledged to build a broad coalition to drive support to find a permanent fix for the so-called “Dreamers.”

The libertarian-leaning network, launched by the Kansas industrialist in 2003, has rivaled the Republican Party in size and scope in recent years. But over the weekend, officials sought to make a sharp pivot away from the political activism that made Charles Koch and his younger brother David household names and a toxic brand for Democrats. (Koch officials announced David Koch’s retirement from Koch Industries and the network last year, citing his declining health.)

Instead, the network is in the middle of a kinder, gentler re-brand. In session after session, network operatives emphasized bridge-building over partisanship.

“We’ve evolved to feel that politics is necessary but not sufficient for the good society,” said longtime donor Frank Baxter, who was US ambassador to Uruguay in George W. Bush’s administration.

Art Pope, another veteran of the Koch world and one of the most powerful figures in North Carolina Republican politics, said it was “time to take a breather” from elections and highlight other aspects of Koch’s vast policy and philanthropic interests.

“2020 is still a ways away,” he told reporters on Monday.

In sessions open to journalists, Koch officials celebrated their wins — working with Democrats and the Trump administration to pass a sentencing and prison overhaul law last year — and made no public mention of recent political setbacks or their very public clash last year with President Donald Trump over his hardline stances on trade. As it did in the 2016 election, the network has decided so far against spending money to help Trump in his 2020 re-election bid.

Instead of touting their political might, as they have at past retreats, Koch officials showcased their growing philanthropic activity. For instance, they announced a $3 million grant to Phoenix, which is a string of fitness gyms and recovery programs free and open to anyone who has been clean of drugs and alcohol for 48 hours. Donors sampled hand lotions and sniffed “citrus wood” candles made by survivors of human trafficking and prostitution. The women work at Thistle Farms, a Nashville nonprofit partially funded by Stand Together, one of the network’s philanthropic ventures.

StoryCorps, famed for the candid conversations it records and often airs on National Public Radio, parked its silver Airstream trailer alongside the resort’s palm-fringed pool.

The Charles Koch Foundation helps underwrite a program, dubbed “One Small Step,” by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay that tapes conversations with people across the political divide.

The network remains a potent influence on the right. It has spent millions to promote a Republican tax cut that became law in 2017 and is backing efforts to appoint conservatives to the federal bench.

And behind closed doors in recent days, donors still talked politics. Pope said one session examined polling data and demographic trends, including a rising interest in socialism among younger voters.

“I’m alarmed by it,” he said in an interview with CNN and other journalists. “The younger generation doesn’t remember what socialism is like.”

Stacy Hock, a philanthropist from Austin, Texas, attending her fourth summit, said the emphasis on community work by Koch-aligned donors is “an opportunity to break down some of those preconceived notions about what we stand for.”

But she acknowledged that donors aren’t likely to fully retreat from Republican politics anytime soon.

“At this point in time, it’s still predominantly Republican candidates who overlap the most with our ideals of limited government,” Hock said. “This group is very open to exceptions to that commonality, but it just hasn’t been the case in recent history.”

The Koch network opens portions of its donor summits to a limited number of journalists but imposes restrictions, such as prohibiting reporters from identifying donors without their permission.