Early in the pandemic, an economist at Brown University named Emily Oster gained extraordinary media attention for the advice she offered. She wrote multiple articles declaring that it was safe to open schools even without the funds needed to pay for extra safety precautions. She wrote, she was written about, she became the go-to person with “evidence” that schools were safe from COVID.

Oster’s research is funded by leading rightwing and libertarian foundations, organizations, and individuals. As the linked article by epidemiologists Abigail Cartus and Justin Feldman explains, Oster’s emphasis on individualism and personal choice ring sweetly in the ears of the rightwing philanthropists.

They write:

Oster’s influence on the discourse around COVID in schools is difficult to overstate. She has been quoted in hundreds of articles about school pandemic precautions and interviewed as a guest on dozens of news shows. Officials from both parties have used her work as justification for lifting public health measures. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cited her study while announcing an executive order banning school mask mandates, while CDC Director Rochelle Walenksy referenced Oster’s research in anticipation of relaxing classroom social distancing guidelines. Oster also co-authored an influential school reopening guidance document that was released in early 2021.

But despite its prominence, Oster’s work on COVID in schools has attracted little scrutiny—even though it has been funded since last summer by organizations that, without exception, have explicit commitments to opposing teacher’s unions, supporting charter schools, and expanding corporate freedom. In addition to grantsfrom the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation, and Arnold Ventures, Oster has received funding from far-right billionaire Peter Thiel. The Thiel grant awarded to Oster was administered by the Mercatus Center, the think tank founded and financed by the Koch family.

Although she claimed that her work was evidence-based, the authors show that her evidence was never as conclusive as she argued.

Cartus and Feldman draw a straight line between Oster’s views about COVID and the billionaire-funded attack on public schools. It is no accident that the same people who support charter schools and vouchers also support Oster.

What’s in it for the billionaires? Oster spreads the gospel of choice, they write, a philosophy of looking out for #1, and ignoring social responsibility.

They write:

Oster is far from the only person to apply an economic style of reasoning to the U.S. education sector. There exists an entire ecosystem of “education reform” organizations that have spent decades attempting to subject schools to market conditions, promoting “school choice”, (i.e., charter schools, some of which are for-profit). This necessitates, among other stances, taking a harder line against organized labor. When the pandemic arrived, billionaires and right-wing interests invested in neoliberal “education reform” saw an opportunity to advance their interests: breaking unions, promoting charter schools, and undermining public education. Oster’s preference for individualism, the rhetoric of choice, and economic reasoning over structural and collective justice-based conceptions made her—as an impeccably credentialed and high-profile economist prior to the pandemic—a valuable “expert” ally in their crusade to reshape U.S. education. Indeed, when the pandemic began, these groups promptly expressed interest in funding her work on COVID in schools….

Throughout the pandemic, Oster’s advocacy has helped make the “data-driven” case for peeling away successive layers of COVID mitigations: first ending remote instructionin favor of hybrid learning, then ending hybrid learning in favor of a full return to in-person instruction, then eliminating quarantine for those exposed to the virus. The direction of her vision for schooling during the pandemic ultimately involves abandoning universal public health measures altogether, turning masking and vaccination into individual, personal choices that can be decided through cost-benefit calculations.

The irony of the Rightwingers’ support for Oster and her “data-driven” approach to COVID is that it stands in sharp contrast to their total disregard for data or evidence about charter schools and voucher schools. The evidence favoring charter schools over district schools is scanty; the evidence of the failure of vouchers is overwhelming. But the funders don’t care.

The bitter struggle over COVID in schools, conducted with the rhetoric of “choice,” opened up space for an alliance between affluent white liberal parents and a right-wing propaganda infrastructure devoted to destroying unions and public schools. For instance, John Arnold, the former Enron executive behind the eponymous Arnold Ventures (which funds Oster), has used the pandemic to attack teacher’s unions and further his goal of dismantling public pension funding, much of which is allocated to unionized public school teachers. The pandemic also provided an opportunity to increase charter school usageat the expense of public school enrollment. It gave plutocrats like the Waltons yet another chance to attack teachers’ unions by painting their demands for safer working conditions as irrational. By advocating reopening in a seminar at Bellwether Education Partners (another Walton grantee) during a period when the Chicago Teachers Union was campaigning for stronger COVID rules, Oster helped the Waltons do precisely that.

To see all the links and read the full article, open the link.