David Sirota, investigative journalist, former speechwriter for Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and writer of the hit film “Don’t Look Up,” recently launched a blog called The Daily Poster. It’s well worth your time to read and to support The Daily Poster.

This important post by Walker Bragman and Alex Kotch documents the Koch money behind the campaign to get schools open, regardless of the risks, and to eliminate mask mandates. The goal of Charles Koch and others on the right was to get the economy back to normal.

Here is an excerpt:

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 heavilysubsidized 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 companiesproviding 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 moreflexibility 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-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.

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.

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 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 articlessupporting 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…

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 Federalisthelped 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….

Please open the link and read the full article. Before reading it, I was unaware of this well-funded, well-coordinated campaign. I was also unaware that the work of Professor Emily Oster at Brown University was funded by the Koch-related Mercatus Institute as well as the Walton Family Foundation, and the Arnold Foundation.