North Carolina Newspapers Mostly Silent As ALEC And Koch Brothers Rewrite History

Blog ››› ››› DANIEL ANGSTER

North Carolina newspapers have largely missed the connection between a Koch-funded education non-profit organization contracted to help shape new statewide history curriculum materials, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative model legislation mill that wrote the bill mandating the new course work.

In 2011, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill known as the "Founding Principles Act," which would require high school students to pass a course on "Founding Philosophy and the Founding Principles of government for a free people." The bill was generated as a piece of model legislation by ALEC, a conservative group that brings corporations and politicians together to vote on and construct bills to be used in multiple states. According to the Huffington Post, North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction, which has been tasked with drawing up the curriculum required by the Founding Principles Act, proposed on December 3 to "'highly recommend' social studies material from the Bill of Rights Institute," an organization which "receives funding from the billionaire Koch brothers."

Of the four largest papers in North Carolina (by circulation), The Charlotte Observer, the News & Record, The News and Observer, and the Winston-Salem Journal, only the Raleigh-based News and Observer produced an original report on the connection between the Koch brothers and the new history curriculum. Its story was reprinted by The Charlotte Observer  and the Winston Salem-Journalthe latter of which added quotes from local teachers. The News & Record only ran a short Associated Press story that referenced the original News & Observer article.

As the News and Observer reported, the Bill of Rights Institute (BRI) was contracted to help create course material. What all of the state papers missed, however, was the BRI's own connection with ALEC. According the Center for Media and Democracy, BRI was an ALEC member and part of ALEC's Education Task Force. Documents obtained by The Guardian show that BRI's ALEC membership lapsed in April 2013, though the institute was listed as providing research materials for the new curriculum in February of the same year.

Even papers that mentioned the Koch brothers influence failed to acknowledge the depth of the connection between the brothers and BRI. The institute's board of directors includes Mark Humphrey, senior vice president of Koch Industries, Ryan Stoweres, the "director of higher education programs at the Charles G Koch Charitable Foundation," Rob Testwuide, who also serves on the board of the Koch-funded Institute for Energy Research, and Todd Zywicki, a senior scholar at the Koch-founded Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Though BRI is based in Virginia, major funding for the organization comes from one of North Carolina's most influential conservative donors: Art Pope. According to a profile in The New Yorker, Pope has "given money to at least twenty-seven groups supported by the Kochs, including organizations opposing environmental regulations, tax increases, unions, and campaign-spending limits." He also served on the board of directors for the Kochs' Americans for Prosperity. 

As the Institute for Southern Studies reported, Pope has been a major donor for the BRI, "giv[ing] at least $370,000 to the [BRI] since 2000." Pope's connection to BRI was also not included in the reports on the institute's involvment in curating the new curriculum. 

Unsurprisingly, BRI has previously produced educational materials packed with partisan rhetoric and misinformation that provided students with a politicized and slanted view of history. As Durham-based magazine Indy Week reported in 2013:

Most concerning to critics, however, is the possibility that [BRI] leaders will shape their lessons with partisan viewpoints. A recent lesson plan on gun rights following the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting in December included questions referencing popular conservative talking points but only briefly noted the central point of pro-gun control arguments--that limiting access to guns will curb gun violence.

"Some regulations have been criticized as criminalizing the behavior of millions of law-abiding Americans because of the criminal acts of others," the plan said. "Should laws be based on harm/intended harm, or also on the potential to do harm?"

Other lesson plans take on topics such as gay marriage and health care, with materials on the latter challenging students to question whether President Obama's 2010 health care overhaul is ultimately constitutional.

State Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, says the institute's curriculum on key race-related Supreme Court decisions directs students toward cases challenging racial equality rather than the "numerous cases that struck down segregationist practices." A college teacher, Luebke called their work a "decidedly conservative analysis of the U.S. Constitution."

The evolution of North Carolina's Founding Principles Act and BRI's involvement in shaping the curriculum represents a perfect storm of big money conservative collaboration. Not only was ALEC able to write and push a bill mandating certain courses, but along with the Koch brothers, it was able to handpick the organization charged with creating the classroom materials used by students, an alliance certainly worthy of coverage from state-level newspapers.

Methodology

Media Matters searched Nexis transcripts of The Charlotte Observer, the News & Record, The News and Observer, and the Winston-Salem Journal for the search term "Bill of Rights Institute" from January 2011 (when the Founding Principles Act was first discussed) through December 8, 2014. Each newspaper's website was also searched for the term, "Bill of Rights Institute."

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