Improper Donor Influence—or Not? A North Carolina Case Lesson

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December 4, 2014; Charlotte Observer

In 2011, North Carolina enacted a law requiring that public schools teach the nation’s “founding principles.” The law makes completion of a semester long course on the beginning years of our nation a graduation requirement for all high school students:

“Ten specific principles earn special attention within the legislation: Creator-endowed inalienable rights of the people; the structure of government, separation of powers with checks and balances; frequent and free elections in a representative government; rule of law; equal justice under the law; private property rights; federalism; due process; individual rights as set forth in the Bill of Rights; and individual responsibility.”

The bill as enacted was modeled on a draft developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). At the time the bill was being debated, Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said, “It’s a slippery slope. This is something we agree is important and critical for students, but what if something more controversial becomes curriculum through legislation? You have to wonder what their limits are. […] I have mixed feelings about it.”

To help implement this new policy, the state’s Department of Education chose the Bill of Rights Foundation to develop course materials and is now considering a proposal to strongly suggest that all school districts use these materials. June Atkinson, state school superintendent, said the state looked for groups that could help write the founding principles curriculum but found only the Bill of Rights Institute. The institute collaborated with state educators, Atkinson said, and they requested feedback from teachers, who reviewed the work and suggested changes.

“It wasn’t a carte blanche, we’ll take what you have,” she said. “We wanted a balanced approach.”

Harry Watson, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said he didn’t think it appropriate for the state to turn to a Koch-funded group to help write history lessons. “I think the Koch brothers have demonstrated they have a strong and active partisan interest in politics,” he said. “I don’t think the public school curriculum should be written from a partisan perspective.”

Is this just a tempest in a teapot or a matter of real concern? Should the political leanings of those who financial support charitable organizations be relevant in evaluating the work of those organizations? Are there effective ways to judge when lines have been crossed?—Marty Levine