The Right Has Been Pushing “Free-Market” Propaganda in US Public Schools for Over a Century

Conservatives today want to root out discussion of racism and other “controversial” topics from schools. Less discussed: the Right is also making advances in its age-old fight to indoctrinate the next generation in rabid free-market ideology.

Children at an elementary school, circa 1945. (Archive Photos / Getty Images)

When the Missouri legislature convened a hearing in 2021 on the topic of how history is taught in the state, Andrew Bolger came armed with a dire warning. The schools were turning kids red, claimed Bolger, who runs the character education program at the conservative College of the Ozarks. “[M]any students have Mao Zedong as a poster on their walls,” he told the legislators. The solution, Bolger argued, was to reorient the schools away from communism and toward what he called “liberty’s foundation,” steeping kids in the value of hard work and the wonders of free enterprise.

Blaming the public schools for leading the nation’s youth astray is a reliable right-wing sport as old as the schools themselves. But while much of today’s conservative crusade is focused on rooting out “woke” indoctrination from classrooms, a far older cause lurks just beneath the surface: the age-old dream that schools will produce the next generation of free-market warriors. In this fantasy, the kids come out right, inured to the charms of “collectivism” and firm in the conviction that the only good government is a limited government.

While this vision of using the schools to grow young champions of capitalism dates back to the pre–New Deal era, the cause has taken on a new urgency today. In his recent best-selling book, Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation, Fox News correspondent Pete Hegseth warns that in polls of younger Americans, socialism has now pulled even with — or even ahead — of capitalism. “How can you blame them?” asks the author. “Their classrooms are inundated with whitewashed history about socialists and communists and full of anti-American views that paint our system, including our capitalist economic system, as predatory.”

Most alarming for the Right, those anti-capitalist views are now showing up in the only polls that really matter: voting. In the midterm elections, young voters effectively canceled out older voters, blocking GOP gains. Nor do the kids seem likely to grow out of their left leanings. Another recent survey found that millennials are “tacking much further to the left on economics” than previous generations, including favoring more wealth distribution from the rich to the poor.

Sounding the alarm after the midterm elections, Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn pointed to exit polls showing that more than six out of ten voters under thirty had supported candidates “committed to less liberty and more expansive bureaucracy.” Like Hegseth, Arnn placed the blame squarely on the schools. For decades, Arnn insisted, kids have been educated with the aim of producing future Democratic voters. Now it was time to make things right.

Right Thinking

In their new book, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway recount the astonishing tale of an industry-led effort to feed students and their teachers “correct information” about capitalism and free-market principles.

In the 1920s, private electrical utilities faced a dilemma. They resisted rural electrification as it wasn’t profitable, but they didn’t want the government to step in and provide the service. The solution that the National Electric Light Association (NELA) settled upon was a propaganda effort through the schools. By influencing textbooks and teachers, went the thinking, these titans of lighting hoped to shape the future generations. These 1920s-era young people, having learned in school that government regulation and public ownership were bad, would grow up to cast their votes for officials who felt the same.

The effort backfired spectacularly. A years-long investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, which documented the group’s disinformation campaign in an eighty-volume set, made NELA a poster child for capitalism run amok. But the concern that schools were churning out kids who were inadequately enamored of the free market — and that getting them the “correct information” would fix this — persisted.

Two decades later, fresh off an effort to roll back the New Deal and blunt the growing power of organized labor, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) launched a far-reaching campaign to sniff out “socialist” textbooks. After reviewing more than five hundred economics, history, social studies, and civics texts, the group concluded that many were hostile to the free-enterprise system. In a precursor to present-day book bans, NAM’s warnings of socialism in schools would result in thousands of books being removed.

In the 1970s, amid the rise of the youth-powered New Left, business groups fixated on the idea that they could win kids back over to capitalism and free enterprise by shaping what they learned in schools. As Kim Phillips-Fein recounts in Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, her history of the rise of the conservative movement, the Chamber of Commerce produced an education kit called “Economics for Young Americans” in the 1980s as part of its effort to grow a grassroots movement in support of capitalism and free markets. Local Chamber members would purchase the kit, then use their powers of persuasion to get the materials into area public schools.

No one would embrace the charge to promote free-market ideology through schools like the brothers Koch. Most of the scrutiny around the Kochs’ efforts to grow young pro-capitalist ideologues has centered on their remaking of higher education, a cause costing an estimated half-billion dollars since 2005.

But the mission of what Charles Koch once described as “attracting youth” to radical free-market libertarianism also led the brothers to where the kids are: public schools. A high school class entitled “Youth Entrepreneurs” steeped kids in the Koch’s particular free-market gospel: minimum wage and government assistance programs, bad; slashing taxes and regulation, good.

In a 2014 investigation, reporters Christina Wilkie and Joy Resmovits pointed out that the focus on under-resourced public schools was particularly cynical given the attacks on school spending from Koch-funded organizations and politicians. A curriculum preaching the dangers of government, provided gratis, was “an attractive alternative to nothing.” Today “Youth Entrepreneurs” has rebranded as Empowered, a network of Koch-supported teachers tasked with empowering kids to think of themselves as the “CEOs of My Enterprise,” even as the ever-expanding Koch empire steps up efforts to dismantle public education entirely.

Back to the Future

When the Donald Trump administration’s 1776 Commission released its report in January 2021, attacking “progressivism” and calling for a restoration of “patriotic education,” historians criticized it as skewed and sloppy. A page of the report recommending topics of discussion for classroom teachers, for instance, would turn out to have been recycled from the previous work of conservative academic and commission member Thomas Lindsay.

But the cut-and-paste job went beyond the discussion prompts on the importance of property rights or why Karl Marx was wrong. While the 1776 Commission may have been aimed at the 1619 Project, it channeled the original critique leveled by conservative industry groups a century ago: that schools were failing to produce citizens who were appropriately reverential toward the idea of free enterprise.

The Republican-led effort to limit what teachers can talk about and students can learn has largely focused on issues of race or so-called “divisive concepts.” To date, forty-four states have introduced bills or adopted policies banning schools from addressing systemic racism in classroom discussions or assignments. These same states are also adopting new standards or curricula aimed at fostering patriotism. But while efforts to sanitize the darker portions of US history have understandably attracted a storm of media attention, the return of the age-old project of educating fervent young capitalists has gone largely ignored.

In Florida, for example, seventh graders returning to school this fall will no longer be asked to conduct a hands-on civics project aimed at “furthering the public good.” Instead, they’ll be analyzing the “advantages of capitalism and the free market in the United States over government-controlled economic systems.”

Such civics overhauls are also aimed at instructing kids that previous efforts to rein in capitalism were in error. The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum, a conservative history and civics curriculum that is used by the college’s fast-expanding network of classical charter schools and available for free online, comes with a decidedly anti–New Deal slant. Kids learn that America went off the rails during the Progressive Era, when socialist bureaucrats strayed from the nation’s founding principles of free-market capitalism, individual rights, and limited government.

In an increasingly crowded marketplace of right-wing curricula, the American Birthright standards, crafted by the conservative Civics Alliance, seek to educate students about the dangers of centralized planning and management via the words of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, and Milton Friedman. The Koch-funded Bill of Rights Institute, which once drew sharp criticism for a curriculum that narrowly focused on property rights at the expense of racism and social inequality, is newly relevant now that such topics are being banned. Through fun-filled activities like creating business cards for the framers of the Constitution, students learn that the nation’s founders prized industry and private property above all.

As red states rush to overhaul their civics offerings, these previously fringe players have new influence. In Virginia, for example, the Civics Alliance and the Bill of Rights Institute were both involved in a controversial rewrite of the state’s history standards. Meanwhile, the Hillsdale curriculum and its teacher reeducation program are being embraced by a growing list of Republican governors and officials.

And it isn’t just in the classroom that students are encouraged to embrace their inner free-marketeers. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, whose ambitious plans to peddle a MAGA-friendly K-12 curriculum fell apart after an employee revolt, is now marketing a high school activism kit to teens. Armed with “America Is Awesome” stickers and Smokey the Bear–inspired cards reading “Only You Can Prevent Socialism,” students can “begin championing freedom, free markets, and limited government.” But there’s a catch: students can only receive their anti-socialism swag by consenting to document their activism — pictures, videos, stories — on social media with the hashtag #BigGovSucks.

Little Laborers

In The Big Myth, Oreskes and Conway revisit the campaign against banning child labor, waged by conservative industry groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers, in the early twentieth century. Making skillful use of “parents’ rights” rhetoric, the groups effectively blocked the effort to add a child labor amendment to the US Constitution.

As the authors make clear, the strident opposition of NAM and its allies was about more than just the loss of a workforce — the young workers who labored in mines, mills, and factories. The industry groups saw the attempts to ban child labor and expand education in the United States as enforcing “erroneous assumptions of equality.” Some kids were destined to work in factories just as some Americans were destined to be bosses.

Today the same states that are mandating that schools teach about the virtues of free enterprise are also rolling back child labor protections. In Arkansas, a new law allows children as young as fourteen to work up to forty-eight hours a week. In Iowa, teens will now be able to work in jobs that were previously off-limits, including demolition, roofing, and industrial laundries.

Fourteen states have introduced bills that would let kids work more dangerous jobs and longer hours. And while advocates often spin these measures as expanding opportunities for industrious teens, there is no question here about who is boss. In New Hampshire, a 2021 law doesn’t just allow teens to work thirty-five hours during the school year, it empowers bosses to demand that they work longer hours.

After a hundred years of largely failed efforts to “school” the nation’s youngsters, the Right may finally have determined that the best place for kids to learn the value of hard work and the wonders of free enterprise may not be school at all but the factory, the meat locker, or the mines. “Legalize Child Labor,” commanded the New Hampshire Libertarian Party on Twitter. “Children will learn more on a job site than in public school.”