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The Wichita Eagle and the Koch Brothers: A Cozy, Cuddly Match

By Diane Wahto
Opinion | February 19, 2012

koch-industries.jpgWICHITA, Kan. - The Koch brothers. Wichita's gift to the right-wing 1%. Recently, just before the Feb. 18th Occupy Koch-Town demonstration, Wichita Eagle reporter Roy Wenzl did a long, front-page piece on the Kochs and the death threats they had received. These death threats, according to Charles Koch, came from left-wingers in response to their support of Scott Walker's attack on public employee unions and the Kochs' alleged ties to the Keystone Pipeline. Charles Koch had his say in the article, denying any monetary interest in Keystone, and said his support of Walker and other right-wing politicians was minimal.

Wenzl, a reporter who is known for writing in-depth human interest pieces, quoted Koch and Koch employees at length, He included only a few rebuttal comments from the Occupy Koch-Town demonstration leaders. Even though I'm not involved in either of the groups that organized the demonstration, the Sierra Club and Occupy Wichita, I know many of those people and I know their actions are open to the public. Their opposition to right-wing policies may be noisy, but it does not include violence or take the form of death threats. When I saw the picture in the local section of the Eagle, Tom James, a Wichita poet and musician, was pictured playing his guitar and leading the group in a song. It looked more like the peaceful anti-war marches that I'd participated in the '60s than a threatening demonstration.

The Eagle Koch piece arouses my hackles for a variety of reasons. Wenzl ignores the basic tenets of good journalism by not challenging what Charles Koch said about his ties to Keystone or to right-wing politicians. It would have taken only a short time to find several articles tying Koch Industries subsidiaries to profits they would gain from the Keystone Pipeline if it is allowed to go forward. koch-brothers.jpg

One such article, a blog on The Guardian, points out the circuitous route by which the Kochs would profit from the pipeline.

Even worse, though, is the fact that the Eagle and other regional news outlets ignore the fact that the Kochs, through the Kansas Policy Institute, are doing their best to destroy public education and other public institutions in Kansas and around the country. As a retired public school teacher and community college instructor, I am most concerned about what the legislature is planning for public education.

Most worrisome is the tax cut scenario set out by Sam Brownback in his January State of the State address. In that address, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal,"The second-year governor urged the 2012 Legislature to lower the tax rate on the state's highest earners from 6.45 percent to 4.9 percent and drop the lowest tax bracket from 3.5 percent to 3 percent. His plan also 'eliminates individual state income tax on most small-business income.'"

It didn't take long for several people to compute that low income earners would pay more, percentage-wise, than the wealthy would pay. Also, people would have to give up income tax credits that now keep them from paying higher taxes in the state.

charter-school-education.jpgA tax cut of that magnitude might help the Kochs, but it would devastate the Kansas public school system. Never fear. Along comes Dave Trabert, president of the Koch-related Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank that provides information and testimony to Kansas legislators as well as those across the country. Trabert earned a degree in business administration from a place called West Liberty State College, now West Liberty University, in Virginia. As far as I can tell, he has never taught school. However, he is now considered an expert on public education.

Among his claims are that charter schools are more effective than public schools, that education doesn't cost money, and that classroom size doesn't make a difference in student learning or teaching effectiveness. If nothing else, his last claim tells me that he's never spent any time in a classroom.

Here is Trabert's formula for improving Kansas schools:

  • There is no single, silver-bullet solution. Identify multiple solutions and adopt them all.
  • Change or establish laws that empower local school boards to act in the best interests of students, not the adults in the system.
  • Change or establish laws that empower parents to decide which educational opportunities are best for their children, rather than having government decide.
  • Move forward with fierce urgency. (Ed Choice)

Trabert assumes that educators don't already know all this. He also assumes that these steps haven't been taken. At least in school districts in which there is enough money for magnet schools, parents are allowed to choose the best school atmosphere for their children. Of course, the subtext for Trabert's list of solutions is that parents get the tax money that now goes to public schools so they can send their children to private schools or privately funded charter schools. Trabert won't say that outright, but that's the message that those who want to destroy our public education system want people to understand.

Even the experts disagree with him on charter schools. According to the CREDO study, the largest study of charter schools compared to public schools, there is little difference in effectiveness between either type of school. Further, what Trabert doesn't take into consideration is that many charter schools are run for profit by business people who aren't concerned about the effectiveness of student education.

Why would Trabert, and by extension, the Kochs, be interested in supporting charter schools over public schools? Apparently, they think charter schools are cheaper to run than public schools. Charter school teachers often are non-union, which means they don't make the salary and benefit demands that unionized public school teachers make. Also, teachers can be paid what an administrator thinks they're worth rather than a fair wage that all public school teachers make. What this adds up to is fewer taxes paid by the wealthy. It also means less effective education for students.

Right now, the Kansas legislature is debating turning KPERS into a 401(k) retirement benefit. Such a benefit would enrich those who play around on the stock market, but it would be an iffy proposition for teachers who may reach retirement age when the stock market is in a down cycle. This move would leave Kansas deeply in debt for the KPERS benefits now owed, and it would likely deprive future teachers of assured benefits.

If Trabert or the Kochs would spend a few weeks in a typical public school classroom, they might get an eye-opening education. They might see that education is indeed costly, that teachers often pay for classroom supplies out of their own underpaid pockets, and that teachers are trained professionals whose effectiveness cannot be measured by the one-dimensional testing that people like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Dave Trabert think is an accurate measure of results.

Schools aren't factories. Students aren't parts on an assembly line. Teachers aren't assembly line workers.

Teaching is an art, teaching is a calling, teaching is hard work. The work doesn't end when the students go home and it doesn't end in the summer.

It might be a stretch to say the Koch brothers are "buying Kansas," as this commentary from Dirt and Seed claims. However, given the legislation we've seen so far in the Kansas State Legislature, it's not too much of a stretch.


Diane, new subject and issue but not much difference in political solutions.

Men, with no experience in the mechanics of the issue, will decide reproductive choices for the women without any policy committee representation from the women.

Men, with no experience in the mechanics of education, will decide education methods with no real input from the class room teachers or even school administrators.

The wealthy 1% will determine economic policy for the 98%.

Ken--Does it have to be that way? Yesterday, my husband and I discussed the problem of people voting without doing any research on the candidates' voting records or not voting at all. When only 5 to 15% of those eligible to vote do so, it's no wonder the 1% can rule the world. The vote is still the most powerful tool we have to defeat bad governmental policies. And yes, it does make a difference who we vote for.

Excellent and very timely essay. Diane, as a former teacher (15 years in public high schools) and a three-term school board member, I wholeheartedly agree with all you've said here. As for the Koch brothers and the think tanks they support--they can run but they cannot hide. I'm not surprised they have influence in Wichita (and elsewhere) because truly money talks, and the recent SCOTUS decision in Citizens United has opened the floodgates to propaganda from such. A recent statistic in "Harper's Index" (Mar.2012 issue) reads "Percentage of political ad spending during 2010 elections that would have been prohibited before Citizens United [=] 72. Expect this year to be even worse.

You're correct, too, that a very slim minority make any significant effort to research candidates. Our "democratic republic" is more and more as Noam Chomsky titled it, one of "Necessary Illusions." Until we get the money out of politics and the media are required to devote real time to the issues, and voters get off their butts and become informed and active, it's not likely to get better.

When the blog got posted to Facebook, as all our blogs do, it elicited a great deal of response, mostly positive. I really don't care whether people agree with me, but this tells me I've hit a nerve. One person thought I was being unfair to imply that the Kochs money controls what gets printed in the local press. I don't think that's unfair, considering that for some reason some people seem to believe that their riches make them above any kind of critical judgment. I don't want what they have. I do want them to pay their fair share of taxes and stop destroying our institutions.

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