Koch network lurks behind school mask battles, despite soothing new tone at the top

October 7, 2021 9:30 am

As controversies about mask mandates sweep schools across the nation, a group aligned with the Koch network has circulated an anti-masking letter template. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector; Getty Images foreground, opensecrets.org background)

Beware old villains who claim to have turned over a new leaf.

Few forces in modern politics have been more villainous than the Wichita-based Koch network, a vast web of right-wing organizations battling environmental progress and eroding American democracy. Just last year, Koch donated $708,500 to candidates who objected to Joe Biden’s presidential win, fueling an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Koch knows that history poses public relations problems as voters grow curious about dark money in politics. So last year we were treated to the spectacle of 85-year-old Charles Koch, the surviving politically active brother, saying he regretted deepening partisan divides. This year, the Koch network said it opposed banning education about our country’s racial history.

Here’s the secret: These public statements are hogwash.

We know this because of ace reporting from the Washington Post, which shows that Koch-affiliated groups are at the front lines of our current culture wars. A group called the Independent Women’s Network, which the Post describes as “built on the scaffolding of the Koch fortune and the largesse of other GOP megadonors,” circulated a letter template opposing mask mandates in schools.

“NAME is excited to be joining NAME OF SCHOOL this year,” it reads. “But I want to share my thoughts on a topic I feel strongly about: masks on kids. I do not believe little kids should be forced to wear masks, and I urge you to adopt a policy that allows parental choice on this matter for the upcoming school year.”

I do hope that NAME gets along with his or her classmates and teacher. They have high standards over there at NAME OF SCHOOL.

The letter resembles the heartfelt pleas of a caring parent. But like so much material churned up in the chum-filled waters of modern politics, it’s a product meant to mislead. The Post report says membership in that Independent Women’s Network costs $5 to $25 monthly, and “research” cited in the letter contradicts medical professionals.

Most importantly, this letter puts the Koch network smack dab in the middle of struggles over local schools. None less than would-be Rasputin Steve Bannon has called school board fights about Critical Race Theory “the Tea Party to the 10th power. This isn’t Q, this is mainstream suburban moms — and a lot of these people aren’t Trump voters.”

Let’s not forget that Koch helped bankroll the Tea Party, too.

Both the Koch network and groups spreading the toxic letter distanced themselves from one another. Yet documented ties suggest otherwise. Readers have every reason to be skeptical of the “relatively minor” relationship claimed in the article.

This is the obligatory paragraph that appears in most articles about Koch Industries, the privately held Wichita company, and its extended network of politically active organizations. The entity and its leaders have supported worthy causes. It has backed criminal justice reform and employs thousands of workers. David Koch personally made worthy cultural donations.

Yet good works only go so far. The climate crisis is an existential threat to our species. Koch has spent millions upon millions of dollars to sow doubts about global warming and pad its bottom line. On Jan. 6, partisan bickering transformed into an armed conflict at the U.S. Capitol. Years of increasingly heated political wrangling, fueled by Koch dollars, brought us to this place.

On one hand, our nation might be destroyed. On the other, our planet might be burned to a crisp. Thanks, guys.

So spare me Charles’ “boy did we screw up” talk. The Kochs didn’t screw up. They achieved their dark goals of power and profit. Second thoughts can’t erase the influence of the political operatives and right-wing policy shops they created and supported.

The sprawling machine keeps running, no matter the human toll.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department told the FBI to work with local governments in investigating threats against school board members and teachers. Those threats come from parents incensed about mask mandates and teaching racial history.

School boards and teachers are the pillars of small-town life. They’re real people to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. They don’t deserve to be targeted by lunatics.

If the Koch network truly wanted to make amends, it could simply stop. Stop funding partisan groups. Stop contributing to candidates. Donate all those funds to churches or homeless shelters or social welfare organizations. Follow the example of the former Mrs. Bezos, Mackenzie Scott, and simply give the money away. Let others, whatever their political persuasion, use these resources for the good of all.

That would truly be turning over a new leaf. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His Reflector columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and website across the state and nation. He has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.