A Philosopher's Blog

The Koch Brothers’ War on Education

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 5, 2011
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The Koch brothers are certainly skilled strategists and tacticians in the political game. One of their standard tactics has been the creation of front groups that work to push their agenda and attack those who oppose their goals. These groups tend to have positive sounding names like “Americans for Prosperity” and also tend to try to create the illusion that they are the natural product of grass root movements and popular support.

While it makes sense for the Koch brothers to target those trying to protect workers or the environment (or, as they probably see it, people who are a threat to their bottom line) it might seem odd for them to set their front groups against teachers. This attack has also been taken up by the fine folks at Fox (who, some might say, are fine corporate sock puppets).

One of the main focuses of the attacks has been to try to assert that the teachers in Wisconsin are paid far better than the average worker. For example, Eric Bolling claimed that Wisconsin teachers received $51,000 in salary and $38,000 in benefits. In contrast, he asserted that the average private sector worker is paid $38,000 in wages and gets $10,000 in benefits. Presumably this comparison was intended to enrage workers against the “high paid” teachers who are presumably growing fat on tax dollars.

However, Bolling made a few mistakes. First, he seems to have overestimated the benefits. The median for benefits is $25,800, which is quite a bit less than the claimed $39,000. However, this is still $76,000 which is obviously more than the $48,000 alleged by Bolling. This leads to his second error. The average private sector worker has a salary of $46,000 and $20,000 in benefits, which narrows the gap considerably. His third error is the comparison that he made. He compared teachers with all private sector workers regardless of education. An accurate comparison would require comparing private sector workers with comparable college degrees to teachers. Interestingly, the average starting salary for college graduates in 2011 will be $50,034. When benefits are taken into consideration, it would seem that the average teacher compensation in Wisconsin is on par with the starting compensation for college graduates. As such, Bolling’s criticism is rather lacking in bite.

This is not to say that there are not legitimate problems in education that need to be be addressed. However, excessive teacher pay is clearly not one of them.

If the attacks on education were consistently aimed at real problems (such as the low performance of students or the educational disparities along economic lines) or they contributed to education in a significant way, then it could be argued that the Koch brothers and their allies were genuinely concerned about improving America’s education system. However, this is clearly not the case. This leads to the question of their actual goals and motivations.

One main motivation seems to be the elimination of the teachers’ union. Teacher’s unions tend to consistently support Democrats rather than Republicans, mainly because Democrats tend to be more pro-education and less inclined to be creationists. Breaking the teachers’ union would thus remove a source of support for Democrats and thus increase the chances of Republicans being elected. While Democrats tend to give corporations almost everything they want, Republicans generally give them everything they want. Hence the preference for Republicans. Naturally, it seems rather wicked and selfish to launch an assault on the education system as a move in a political game.

A second main motivation seems to be the desire to make the education system more vulnerable to manipulation. For example, the Koch brothers have endeavored, via their well paid front groups, to convince people that climate change is a myth. No doubt they would prefer to see their view being taught in the schools and it would be much easier to make this so without organized opposition from the teachers union.

To anticipate the obvious rejoinder that there are problems in education and that the teachers’ unions have problems as well, I say that I agree there are problems. However, eliminating the teachers’ unions is not the solution to these problems anymore than eliminating corporations is the solution to the problems that corporations cause.

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