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COVID has been an accelerant for political battles that were already smoldering, and schools are on the front lines. Differences over vaccines, mask mandates and school closures are intensifying education-based culture wars and long-standing conflicts over inequality, parental choice and labor rights for teachers.

To some extent, that explains why an otherwise innocuous-sounding research project, the COVID-19 School Data Hub, has become a source of controversy. Part of the criticism of the project has to do with its creator, economist Emily Oster, who has become a lightning rod in the school closure debate.

But the concern has been heightened by Oster receiving funding from several of the country’s wealthiest private K-12 funders and a think tank with ties to conservative donors Peter Thiel and Charles Koch. Oster maintains her funders have not influenced her work, but critics have sounded the alarm about the agendas of the project and its financial backers.

On one level, the data platform is a welcome resource on the effects of COVID on schools, filling an information vacuum that no other entity—public or private—has stepped up to address. Oster and her team at Brown University created the online tool to capture and evaluate information on school closures and their impact on learning.

For her critics, however, Oster’s association with conservative and pro-charter funders suggests alignment with—or at the least a lack of opposition to—efforts to undermine teachers’ unions and traditional public schools amid debates over school reopenings and remote learning.

Oster’s funding comes from Arnold Ventures, the Walton Family Foundation and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), along with Emergent Ventures. Arnold and Walton are major backers of the charter school and school choice movements, along with a range of other K-12 strategies. Walton, in particular, is an enthusiastic charter champion. Meanwhile, Emergent Ventures was launched with a $1 million grant from Peter Thiel, and is housed within the Mercatus Center, a conservative economics think tank funded over the years by Charles Koch.

IP reached out to all of these funders about what motivated their support for the COVID-19 School Data Hub. According to a spokesperson for the Walton Family Foundation, “The long-term impact of COVID on children’s social, emotional and academic wellbeing is not fully or widely understood. The School Data Hub’s research will provide vital and accessible information to educators, parents, students and policymakers so they’re equipped to respond to these challenges going forward.” CZI supported the Data Hub as part of its $15 million COVID-19 Response Portfolio for Vaccine Equity and Community Response Efforts (CZI supports both charter networks and some traditional public schools). We didn’t receive a response from Arnold Ventures.

The controversy surrounding Oster, her work, and the funders supporting it reflects some of the heated and complicated divides stemming from concerns over COVID, its impact on children, and health and safety of teachers. But it’s also indicative of ongoing, rising unease over donor influence and the role of wealthy private funders in school systems.

The face of school reopenings in America

After the pandemic closed schools in the spring of 2020, Oster began to collect information from districts around the country and created a dashboard to incorporate the data she collected. In July 2020, she was already raising questions about the need to keep schools closed.

That fall, as the school year began, Oster crunched the numbers and found low rates of COVID infection for both students and school staff. She challenged the efficacy and need for shuttered schools, raising concerns about the academic and psychological risks for kids, and the burden on families. Her article, “Schools Aren’t Superspreaders,” published in October 2020 in The Atlantic, made the case for reopening schools and received wide attention.

The COVID-19 School Data Hub, launched in September 2021, builds on her earlier work. “It’s crazy that 18 months into the pandemic, we are relying on such an incomplete understanding of what happened in schools during the last school year and how those decisions have affected students, teachers and parents,” Oster said in the announcement.

In a recent interview with IP, Oster spoke with enthusiasm about the Data Hub and its potential to track the impact of the pandemic on students and schools. To date, the hub has gathered data from schools in 41 states and the District of Columbia, and Oster and her team intend to add information from more states, as well. The data includes numbers on which facilities were open, which were closed, and which were hybrid, as well as COVID infection rates in some states. Oster would like to also add information about enrollment, student achievement, and other factors that could help track the long-term impact of school closures on graduation rates, mental health and other issues.

Oster and her colleagues have designed the hub to be accessible to researchers—now and into the future. “I think these data will be useful in understanding some of the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic,” she said. “We could see ripple effects from school closures in various ways for decades, and if we don’t have this kind of data source, all that information could be lost.”

Oster doesn’t come off as someone who particularly relishes the limelight. Still, for an economist and an academic, she’s received her share of attention. She first gained a name as the author of popular parenting books that offer practical, often iconoclastic parenting advice. In her frequent articles, tweets and appearances in newspaper features and news programs, Oster has raised doubts not only about closures, but about the need for masks and social distancing in schools. Most recently, Oster and several colleagues published a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper suggesting that learning loss was markedly worse in school districts where classes were fully remote.

As the pandemic wore on and beleaguered parents, school officials and besieged lawmakers alike sought answers about school safety, many turned to Oster. One reporter joked on Twitter about creating “Emily Oster is my CDC” t-shirts and mugs, and Vox called her “the face of school reopenings in America.”

Today, schools in most areas of the country are open (with some exceptions), and advocates on both sides of the debate agree that in-person learning is better for children and teachers alike. While it’s not a clear divide, conservatives have generally been more adamantly opposed to school closures, while teachers unions and their supporters, as well as many public health experts, have been more sympathetic, citing risks of school and community spread. As the midterms get closer, school closures and who to blame for them are likely to figure prominently in GOP attacks on Democrats, and are already popular fare on Fox News.

So it’s no surprise that Oster’s views have been controversial, too, and the abundant press coverage has triggered hate mail. But Oster is stoic about the attention, both positive and negative. “I think sometimes, people like me too much. And sometimes, people dislike me too much. And probably the reality is much more in the middle,” she said. “But you know, there’s not that much I can do about it.”

Thiel, Koch and company

While Oster has her critics, they’ve focused more on her methods and conclusions than her sources of funding. Still, as early as December 2020, epidemiologist Abigail Cartus, who writes for Medium under the name Abby C., linked Oster’s opposition to school closures to her funders, including the Walton Family Foundation, a longtime supporter of charter schools and school choice.

Now, some of Oster’s critics are focused on a $220,000 grant she received from Emergent Ventures, which launched in 2018 with a $1 million grant from the Thiel Foundation. Peter Thiel is a staunch libertarian and a prolific Republican donor, and recently stepped down from Meta’s board to focus on funding several Trump-aligned candidates.

According to its website, Emergent Ventures’ mission is to “jumpstart high-risk, high-reward ideas that advance prosperity, opportunity and wellbeing.” It’s a fellowship and grant program of the Mercatus Center, a conservative think tank at George Mason University to which Charles Koch has been a major donor over the years. In 2018, the Koch brothers reportedly influenced hiring decisions at George Mason, pushing candidates for positions at Mercatus who shared their conservative, rigidly anti-regulatory economic philosophy. Koch is active in conservative efforts to undermine teachers unions and traditional public schools, as IP has reported.

When epidemiologist and Harvard fellow Justin Feldman, already an Oster critic, learned about the funding from Emergent Ventures, he tweeted: “Congratulations to Emily Oster for getting funding from Charles Koch and Peter Thiel, two far-right billionaires who are in no way influencing the research and advocacy project to downplay the risks of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools.”

It is true that Thiel funded Emergent Ventures, which backed Oster. And that Charles Koch funds Mercatus, where Emergent is housed. But according to an Emergent spokesperson, Charles Koch does not fund Emergent Ventures or its grants. The spokesperson also pointed out that Koch is one of many funders of Mercatus, and that the research center adheres to a strong policy in support of independent research.

Oster said Emergent Ventures gave her a one-time sum, which came with no strings attached. Her team has already used the money from Emergent, which was a one-and-done arrangement that isn’t going to be renewed. According to Oster, the grant from Emergent was closely vetted by Brown University, which handled the process, and would not have accepted the gift if it failed to meet their research guidelines or included onerous requirements.

“I’m not a fan of the ideological bent of the Koch brothers, so I understand some of the concerns, but I think that it misunderstands the role of funders in something like this,” Oster said. “Brown has very strong rules and norms about what a funder can ask of a grantee. The implication that Charles Koch is personally calling me and, you know, suggesting edits to what I do—that’s just not remotely the case.”

For Oster, it’s all about the work. “I felt really passionate about doing this project because I think it is really important. I couldn’t self-fund it because I am not an independently wealthy person, and I don’t have the internal research funds for it. This meant we needed to go look for foundation grants.”

Going forward, Oster is hoping to get long-term federal funding for the School Data Hub, and is in the process of applying for it now. “The hub is really well set up to do research and to write research papers, and that is what federal funding is for. I am tremendously grateful for the foundation grants, but I think the future of the project is going to be in the federal grant space.”

COVID punditry

Whether or not the Emergent grant came with strings attached is not the point for Feldman, a social epidemiologist and health and human rights fellow at Harvard’s Center for Health and Human Rights.

Feldman doesn’t think that the grant from Emergent Ventures necessarily indicates that Thiel or Koch intended to influence Oster’s research. But he points out that her conclusions about COVID and school safety do bolster conservative critiques of school closures, which in turn undermine support for teachers’ unions and public schools. “I think these funders chose her because they already knew the kinds of messages she would be putting out into the world,” Feldman told IP.

Even before Feldman knew about the funding behind the Data Hub, he had problems with Oster’s analysis of the data and her conclusions about school safety. He considers Oster part of the chorus of what he calls the “COVID punditry” that has helped shape the U.S. approach to the pandemic.

In a 2021 article for Protean titled “Moral Calculations: Pandemic Coverage Obscures Individual Risk and Social Harm,” Feldman and several colleagues argued that the U.S. pandemic response has emphasized the rights of individuals over concern for the broader community. They contend that much of the opposition to school closures centers the convenience of privileged families over the safety of low-income families, the medically fragile and people of color (who are more likely to work in professions that place them at high risk). Oster and her data have supported this approach, according to her critics.

Concerns over private wealth and education

Oster sees funding for her project as a practical matter—fuel she needs to get the Data Hub up and running and out on the road.

For Feldman and others, accepting money from those who may have a conservative or an anti-union agenda signals a tacit endorsement of that agenda, whether or not that’s Oster’s intention. Even if there’s no explicit influence, the mere presence of certain donors can cast a shadow. Especially right now, any association with Peter Thiel, who has aligned himself so closely with right-wing causes and Donald Trump, makes even the most neutral-seeming project appear to be advancing an agenda, whether or not that’s the case.

The Data Hub story also demonstrates more broadly the way that private funders influence which research and perspectives receive air to breathe. Long before COVID-19, the Gates Foundation championed “small schools,” major K-12 funders poured money into charter schools, and now, conservative donors are backing school voucher bills in state legislatures around the country. Private wealth looms large in public education, and the backlash here reflects valid concerns over the substantial influence some of these donors are having in the public sphere.

COVID has wreaked havoc in schools and created tremendous funding needs that philanthropy can help meet. But as the pandemic increases divisions and sows mistrust in our public institutions, there’s a risk that an influx of private money will fuel that mistrust, and assume an even greater role in shaping our education system and its future.

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