Courting readers

This is an artist’s concept of the facility planned for the Washoe County Courthouse.

With little fanfare, a political group called Foundation Forward, Inc. is planning to install an elaborate reading display on the grounds of the Washoe County Courthouse.

The installation will feature waist-high mounts for tilted panels on which passersby may read from three historical documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

The Washoe County Commission approved the facility at Foundation Forward’s request on Oct. 9 on a 3-to-0 vote, two members absent. Two representatives of the group, Mike Widmer and Chuck Slavin, pledged to raise the money for the project, which has raised alarm among local history and culture figures.

Based in North Carolina, Foundation Forward Inc. (FFI) is an organization allied with the Koch brothers, noted for their support of conservative causes. The group is incorporated under a federal 170(b)(1)(A)(vi) license, meaning it receives at least a third of its funding from government units or the public. The group also uses materials created by Koch-funded groups

In one promotional video, FFI’s treasurer, Ron Lewis, said, “We’re in the beginning of what could be a massive reeducation of our founding principles.”

In June 2014, FFI’s assets totaled $156,869 and its income was $617,929.

The reading facilities, which FFI is trying to install across the nation—one is also planned for Carson City—feature three of the most easily available historical documents, quickly accessible online. Indeed, the Reno installation will be just outside the Washoe County Law Library, which has the documents in several volumes.

Foundation Forward is headed by defeated U.S. House candidate Vance Patterson of Morganton, N.C. His former website contained this bio: “Vance Patterson has been a lifelong conservative Republican. Vance is a committed Christian and Sunday School teacher, and he is dedicated to defending the social conservative values that are the bedrock of American society. Vance is a firm believer in the brilliance of our Constitution, written on Biblical principles, and designed to protect us from tyranny as long as we protect those principles.”

The courthouse reading display project is used by FFI to fault public education, as in language in a Foundation Forward video: “After one visit, these grade school children will know more about our history and government than most of the people in the United States.”

Grade school is a term used for elementary school, which in Washoe County is kindergarten through the fifth grade. The Washoe school district curriculum for that age cohort not only touches on independence, rights and constitutional law, but also the national anthem.

In first grade, Washoe students work their way through 12 lessons on independence, from Jamestown and Roanoke through the difficulty of enduring the long revolution (“Lesson 7A: Will This War Never End?”), to the achievement of independence.

In terms of the Constitution, early grades ease students into the concept, but by fifth grade, the curriculum requires familiarity with “legislative branch, executive branch, judicial branch, checks and balances, veto, Articles of Confederation, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, civic virtue, democracy, law, government, individual rights, citizen, and three fifths clause.” There are discussion topics on the role of slavery, religion, suffrage and other factors in the writing of the Constitution.

Students are expected to know players like the Federalists, Antifederalists and the framers. They learn about Shay’s Rebellion, the constitutional convention, the Virginia and New Jersey plans, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Worrisome alliances

In 2014 in North Carolina, where FFI is based, when there was a proposal that high school social studies teachers use curriculum materials prepared by the Bill of Rights Institute—also Koch-subsidized—the Charlotte News & Observer reported, “But history teachers said in interviews Wednesday that they already have a wealth of resources available for teaching the founding principles. Some said it was not appropriate for a Koch-connected group to write public school course materials, and none knew that the state had hired the institute to develop a curriculum.” FFI has used some of the Bill of Rights Institute’s materials in its sales pitches for the reading display project.

A question raised by the display planned by Foundation Forward is whether other political organizations who approach the county will now have a precedent the commission should follow.

In addition, it raises the issue of whether the county wants to be in the position of identifying itself with political groups, which members of this commission have done in the past. One commissioner—Jeanne Herman—has donated tax dollars to a conservative political group and the full commission donated $5,000 in tax dollars to the same group—the Nevada Lands Council, which agitates for public lands to be turned over to state government (“Taxing issue,” RN&R, Jun 9, 2016).

There is also the issue of whether the FFI courthouse array is suitable for the currently rather simple and tidy courthouse layout. There is one marker already in place, commemorating World War II, but its small site did not fundamentally alter the neat, uncluttered look of the property. One local cultural leader worries about the reading display’s “detrimental effect on the historic setting.”

None of these matters were dealt with at the Oct. 9 county commission meeting where the facility was approved, nor did county staffers raise them.

In the 1950s, to publicize his second filming of The Ten Commandments, movie director Cecil B. DeMille started an effort to install granite TC monuments across the country. Eagles Lodges helped push the project. Two such markers were installed in this valley, both on public property. One was across the street from the Washoe courthouse, on the section of Powning Park south of Court Street. It later became the site for the Squaw Valley Olympics headquarters in Reno when it was the host city and is now filled with several war memorials. The other TC marker was in Burgess Park at the corner of Pyramid and Greenbrae in Sparks. Both were eventually removed from public property, as were others around the nation.

Editor’s note: The initial version of this story said Foundation Forward Inc. was subsidized by the Koch brothers. That should have read that it USES Koch-subsidized materials. The online article has been corrected.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.