The Koch Brothers Want to Teach Your Kid That Sweatshops Are Good and the EPA Is Bad

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Aug. 26 2014 5:10 AM

Koch 101

The Koch brothers are paying millions to inject libertarian ideas into high school curriculums.

Students raise their hands in class.
“Does anyone know why the EPA is bad for the environment?”

Photo by Fuse/Thinkstock

Pop quiz, teachers: Would you like to inject a strong dose of libertarianism into the curriculum you take back to school this fall?

If you answered yes, then a Koch-funded think tank has exactly what you need. And it won’t cost you or your school a penny.

The Edvantage, a project of the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies, bills itself as an online “curriculum hub for pioneering educators.” The website offers high school teachers and college professors educational videos, articles, and podcasts on topics including economics, history, and philosophy. But as people might expect from a think tank whose board is chaired by billionaire libertarian Charles Koch, most of the project’s economics content features two common themes: vilify government, promote the free market.

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For example, teachers using Edvantage can find economics videos explaining how the Environmental Protection Agency is bad for the environment, how sweatshops are good for third-world workers, and how the minimum wage costs workers jobs. Content featuring opposing viewpoints, however, is sparse.

“The minimum wage is supposed to help the poorer, less-skilled, and younger workers in the economy,” says the narrator in “The Truth About the Minimum Wage,” a video produced by the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education and featured on Edvantage. “But it doesn’t. It gets them fired.”

According to its website, Edvantage is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, whose core funding areas include “individual freedom and free markets.” Program director Daniel Green said through a foundation spokeswoman that the two-year, $739,000 grant is meant “to further Sir John Templeton’s objective of supporting education about the enhancement of individual freedom and free markets.” In addition to funding free-market initiatives, the foundation—founded by the billionaire global investor and mutual fund pioneer—supports a variety of other causes, including ones related to science and religion.  

The Institute for Humane Studies, which is housed at George Mason University’s campus in Arlington, Virginia, is funded largely by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The think tank, whose mission is to advance “a freer society,” received $12.4 million from the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation from 2008 to 2012, according to annual tax documents.

The Koch brothers appear to be on a mission to spread their libertarian message to high school and college students. In July, the Huffington Post published a story headlined, “Koch High: How the Koch Brothers Are Buying Their Way Into the Minds of Public School Students,” which detailed how a Koch-run nonprofit called Youth Entrepreneurs is recruiting teachers and crafting curricula favorable to the Koch’s political agenda. And as the Center for Public Integrity reported in March, two of the six private charitable foundations the Koch brothers control and personally fund combined in 2012 to pump more than $12.7 million into colleges and universities.

The Edvantage officially launched in October, but this is the first time it will be available to teachers for the beginning of a school year. It is unclear how many teachers and professors have used Edvantage. Scott Barton, a director of the project, declined to be interviewed for this story. In an emailed statement, he wrote, “Resources are curated with the help of our academic editorial board to present ideas from diverse ideological perspectives.”

But teachers who use Edvantage won’t find much ideological balance while researching content on the website’s economics pages. The educational materials selected by Edvantage for economics lessons are overwhelmingly anti-government and pro–free market. For example, a page of videos and articles on economic regulations includes videos that lament occupational licensing laws, explain how regulations are burdening food truck owners, and argue that free markets regulate product safety better than the government. Content found on pages about fiscal policyentrepreneurship, and price controls is similarly dominated by libertarian perspectives critical of government regulation.

The videos offered on the website are often clever, funny, and well-produced. Many videos are produced by Learn Liberty, a separate project of the Institute for Humane Studies that calls itself “a resource for learning about the ideas of a free society.” One animated Learn Liberty video, titled “How Food Regulations Make Us Less Healthy,” explains how government red tape results in less competition and higher food safety risks.

“Is government the best way to promote food quality, health, and nutrition? I say no,” the narrator says in the video. “A freer market without distortions would allow consumers to buy cheaper, healthier food.”

Another video features libertarian Jeffrey Tucker recalling a heart-wrenching personal story about how a small increase in the minimum wage caused his mentally disabled friend, Tad, to lose his job at a department store.

“People want to know why I’m against the minimum wage,” a teary-eyed Tucker says in the video. “It’s because of Tad and all of the millions of other Tads out there.”

Edvantage editorial board member Gailen Hite says he’s “very pleased” with the website, but the Columbia University economics professor acknowledges that the editorial content “is not completely balanced.”

“It’s fair to say that most of us have a libertarian and market orientation,” he said, referring to Edvantage’s board members, all of whom are economists. The site’s content is certainly heavy on free-market perspectives, he added, “but that’s sort of consistent with the values of the organization.”

Besides, Hite said, college students could use a lesson in libertarianism.

“I don’t think the libertarian perspective gets that much of an airing on college campuses,” he said. “We would like to have our story told, too.”

This story was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

Chris Young is a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity’s Consider the Source project, where he focuses on the influence of money in state and federal courts.

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