Get Ready for History Class, Koch Brothers-Style

Here we go again: A state education agency, this time in North Carolina, is ready to recommend that schools adopt a set of curriculum materials under fire from teachers and other critics who say the materials are biased.

But this time, the battle over curriculum standards isn't about the teaching of evolution versus creationism or intelligent design. This clash is over social studies standards developed by a group with ties to the conservative Koch brothers.

The Charlotte Observer reported recently that the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction plans to recommend that schools in the Tar Heel State adopt standards developed by the Bill of Rights Institute for a state-mandated social studies course on founding principles. The Bill of Rights Institute received a $100,000 sole-source contract from the state to develop materials for teachers to use in the course. A sole-source contract means no other group was involved in developing the curriculum.

The Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute was founded in 1999 and describes itself as a nonprofit charity with a mission to educate young people about American founding principles and their role in the shaping of a free society. The institute receives funding from Koch philanthropic groups. In addition, representatives of Koch Industries and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation sit on the institute's board of directors.

June Atkinson, North Carolina's state superintendent, said the state agency looked for groups to help write the curriculum for the founding principles course, but found only the Bill of Rights Institute. History teachers, however, say they have plenty of resources available for teaching the principles and that it is inappropriate for a Koch-connected group to develop course materials.

The Koches and their philanthropies have been active supporters of conservative institutions, causes, and scholars. As reported in the past, Charles Koch is a major donor to colleges and universities, supporting faculty and research centers that advance the Koches' libertarian political and economic views. As the news out of North Carolina makes clear, the effort to influence classroom content is not limited to higher education.

Ideological clashes over K-12 curriculum materials are nothing new. There was the infamous Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. For decades, the late Mel and Norma Gabler of Texas scoured proposed school textbooks for content they viewed as anti-Christian or promoting secular humanist ideas. More recently, the Kansas Board of Education briefly adopted science standards to mandate the teaching of creationism and intelligent design alongside evolution.

Increasingly, however, the field of battle seems to have shifted from science to social studies. In Texas, the state's board of education adopted new social studies textbooks that place states' rights ahead of slavery as a cause of the Civil War and cite Moses and biblical law as key influences on America's founding documents. The action in North Carolina, with its link to a prominent conservative funder, raise important questions over whether and to what extent funders should be able to influence classroom content.

The Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics are already under fire in some states from activists backed by an array of conservative funders, including the Koches and the Bradley Foundation. Common Core defenders, meanwhile, include the Gates Foundation, which helped lead the effort to develop them. The news out of North Carolina shows that the fight over what school children should be taught—and who should develop those standards and materials—is a sprawling battle with many fronts, involving many funders.