Art Pope’s Mission to Take the ‘Public’ Out of Public Education

Last January, in a dark-of-night vote, Republican legislative leaders in North Carolina passed a bill barring educators from using payroll deduction to pay dues to the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). The controversial vote was widely seen as retribution against educators for their criticism of the GOP’s extremist education agenda. It was a radical, bare-knuckled move that personified the rightward tilt of the North Carolina’s Republican party – a shift that even the few remaining moderate lawmakers find disconcerting, but powerless to stop.

After the dues deduction vote, some of these last-standing moderate Republicans even told Brian Lewis, manager of government relations at NCAE, that it was a vote they didn’t want to take, and, what’s more, even begged their leadership not to do it. So why did they go along?

“The reply I got from most of them,” recalled Lewis, “was essentially ‘Oh come on, you know the reason.’”

That may sound a bit cryptic, but Lewis, and anyone who is involved in or follows North Carolina politics, understood the message. The “reason” is a man named Art Pope  –  or  more specifically his ability to target and primary any GOP lawmaker who doesn’t meet his standard of ideological purity.

Is that Governor Art Pope? Majority Leader Art Pope? Representative Art Pope? Or maybe even Lieutenant Governor Art Pope? None of the above. Art Pope is CEO and Board Chairman of Variety Wholesalers, Inc. a low-end retail discount chain of roughly 400 stores scattered throughout the southeastern U.S. In the past decade, Pope has used a network of foundations and “think-tanks” he created to funnel more than $40 million toward various right-wing causes.

“His reach is wide, vast and deep,” says Lewis. “Art Pope owns the North Carolina Republican Party.”

The extent of Pope’s influence in North Carolina – seen by most political observers as a critical swing state in the 2012 elections – was clearly evident in 2010. Republicans dominated that election, winning 18 of the 22 races targeted by Pope, and the vast majority of spending by independent groups in these races came from Pope-funded organizations.

Bankrolling right-wing politicians provides Pope with the committed allies he needs to pursue his number one agenda: the complete dismantling of the public sector.

Pope has said that he merely thinks the private sector is simply more efficient and effective than the public sector – boilerplate conservative language, but it masks who Pope actually is.

Mac McCorkle, a Democratic strategist and a lecturer at Duke University, told The New Yorker last year that Pope has been underestimated because people find him “intellectually engaging.”

“But deep down, he’s an ideologue, a zealot.”

Lewis adds: “Art Pope is someone who believes that if you are a public employee, then you must be a socialist.”

Pope’s impassioned and rigid belief in the power and virtue of the private sector drives his political activities. Pope’s organizations – the Pope Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, the John Locke Foundation, the Civitas Institute, to name just a few – all aggressively promote the privatization of the education system. If it’s a bill to expand charters, voucher programs, or undermine workers’ rights and decimate public education funding, connect the dots and they will lead back to Art Pope’s fortune.

Pope, unfortunately, is just one member of a brigade of corporate players who are behind some of the most extreme, destructive so-called education reform bills currently being debated. The poster boys are, of course, the billionaires Charles and David Koch of Koch industries, whose reach and influence extends far beyond their base of operations in Kansas and have strong ties to Pope. Then there’s the DeVos family in Michigan. All are connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nationwide front group funded almost exclusively by corporate dollars, which has been distributing huge amounts of cash to right-wing politicians in statehouses across the nation.

While lawmakers are finding themselves increasingly indebted to these corporate players, Art Pope and others like him are, in turn, accountable to no one. They hold no public office and prefer to sit behind the curtain, pulling the levers.

Still, such power and influence over the democratic process can only stay concealed for so long.

“People need know what Art Pope does, which is why we’re trying to bring him out and his activities out into the light,” explains Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham-based non-profit media, research and education center. One of its projects is the “Art Pope Exposed” web site.

“A lot of what he’s pushing really stands outside where the public stands,” says Kromm, “but because he has the money, he can call the shots.”

Except when he overreaches and progressive coalitions can push back effectively. This is what happened last year in Wake Country, where voters rejected a slate of Pope-backed right-wing candidates for the Board of Education. Pope had helped conservatives win control of the Wake County board in 2009, who were determined to dismantle the county’s long-standing diversity policies that had helped roll back decades of segregation.

“What we found is that when we can assemble a strong, united coalition, “ explains NCAE’s Lewis, “and we can at least be competitive on TV, then we can beat him. That’s what happened in Wake County. There were five races to win back the school board. We took all of them.”

Nonetheless, tracking and fighting back against Pope’s activities can be a grueling, full-time job for  supporters of public education. And even as more and more North Carolinians get to know Art Pope, his various organizations have spent much of 2012 conducting a no-holds barred media campaign spreading distortions and misinformation about education funding in the state.

“You can often defeat bad ideas in the court of public opinion and in the legislature,” Lewis says, “ but guys like Art Pope have deep pockets, they are relentless, and they don’t care how they’re viewed in the public.  He believes, in the end, his money will win the day.”


See also:

Academic Freedom Sold Off Cheap

Beware Pro-Charter School “Parent” Groups


  • TJ

    wow! he must be Governor Jindal’s mentor

  • Mike

    OK let’s do a recap:

    “Dark of night vote, GOP’s extremist education agenda, radical, bare-knuckled move, rightward tilt, cryptic, ideological purity, “think tanks” (in quotes), right-wing causes, boilerplate conservative language, he’s an ideologue zealot, extreme destructive so-called education bills, poster boys, right-wing politicians…” AND THERE IT IS, the icing on every liberal’s cake, he wants to bring back, you guessed it, “SEGREGATION!”

    Come on Tim Walker, really? Could you have written a piece more inflammatory and overflowing with slant and liberal bias? You seem to forget something sir. Liberals have run education for DECADES, and look at where it has gotten us. Record poor performance and teacher burnout yet with public monetary expenditures on education at an all time high.

    While I don’t know Art Pope or if I agree with his politics, I DO know that he is correct – it IS time to privatize education. Public education and all of this political correctness has had its chance and failed miserably, it is time to categorize education not as a right which a government is obligated to provide, but as a PRODUCT, a product subject to free market competition which will maximize quality (and teachers’ salaries) while minimizing cost.

    I think groups like the NEA and other “advocates” DON’T WANT education to improve, they DON’T WANT teachers’ salaries to be determined by free market profits and competition because they would be vastly greater than this government pittance teachers are forced to exist on today with such enormous overhead consumed by this bloated and ineffective bureaucracy called the Dept of Education. And with teachers getting the pay, respect, and students they deserve to be working with, guess what – WE WON’T NEED THE NEA ANYMORE.

    And that’s the whole point here, isn’t Mr. Walker, in publishing such a biased and poorly written hit piece article. You are afraid of slipping into obscurity where you and your parasitic organization belong.

    “It is not because we care about children, and it is not because we care about having a quality education system for every child, it is because we have POWER.” Bob Channin, NEA General Council

    • liberals have run education for decades…interesting assertion. If only you had some proof!

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  • Virginia Villafranca

    After 40 years of dedicated public school teaching, I find what this guy believes to be HORRIFYING.
    Worst than that is that he is getting away with his outright lying without anyone during him for slander and misrepresentation. What’s really wrong here is that NEAhas not pushed for an all out BOYCOTT of any and all businesses that he makes money from, because the only way to stop him is to hit his wallet. This boycott must be country wide. Every NEA member past or present has got to be convinced of the EVIL this guy is promoting.

  • Frank

    Pope is just another “free market” proponent who wants to turn public education into a for-profit model to funnel more money to his and his friends pockets. He reminds me of David Brennan, the fraudster out of Akron, Ohio.

    If and when someone could give me a good answer to the following question, I’ll give privatizing public education some credence:

    “What is the vision of privatizing education for the low income, at-risk minorities?”

    Convince me, Mr. Pope, that your plan adequately addresses my question. Your time starts now…

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  • fayedaniels

    Why was Art Pope on the on the Board of Trustees State Health Plan for Teachers and State Employees Department of State Treasurer? That was a RED FLAG for me and then those of us retired and 65 went from our red, white, and blue Medicare cards to the Green Humana Medicare cards. Has this been looked into at all?…/BOT_Minutes-11-22-2013.pdf