In Merchants of Deception: Parent Props and their Funders, a new report just out from the Network for Public Education, Massachusetts political scientist, Maurice Cunningham explores what appeared a couple of years ago to be the spontaneous emergence of angry parents’ groups protesting teaching about racism, sex and gender.
“In truth,” he begins, “political interests use crises to turn politics and policy their way. This has happened during the COVID pandemic as right-wing ‘parent’ groups came out of nowhere to protest health measures such as masking and vaccine requirements in schools, then moved on to Critical Race Theory, then LGBT issues, book banning, and an endless stream of other ginned up culture war issues. In truth the Right has been massing its forces for years to undermine public education, but the sudden proliferation of ‘parents’ and ‘moms’ groups has signaled a new and more virulent turn… Conservative groups have exploded since 2021 and include operations like Parents Defending Education (PDE) and Moms for Liberty (M4L). They draw on white backlash politics and resentment.”
Teachers and school librarians are under attack, and local school boards have become sites of screaming and name-calling. In his new report, Cunningham demonstrates that the eruption of far-right trouble making is, in fact, not spontaneous. The new wave of parents’ groups is funded by the same far-right donors who are using the attacks to discredit public schools and public school teachers and promote an explosion of vouchers across state legislatures.
How does Cunningham know that the parents’ groups screaming at local school board members and pressing for laws like Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E.” bill are really fake grassroots—Astroturf—organizations sponsored and funded by the far-right? He explains that the far-right groups supporting the attack on public schooling “rely on a network of dark money donors and their front organizations, and it can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to identify the true sources of funding.” But there are other clues. First we should watch for groups that have “grown at a pace that only a corporation’s monetary resources could manage.” Then we should identify the group’s allies to “get a better idea of the real powers behind” the organization. Additionally: “We’ll use another tool to draw telling inferences about these fronts: identification of their key vendors, such as law firms, pollsters, and public relations firms, which we’ll see are often instruments of conservative… networks… Another recurring clue… is the ‘creation story.’ A new non-profit group bursts forth with some version of claiming that two or three moms began talking over what they see as problems in schools and resolve to start a nonprofit to take on the teachers’ unions, administration, or school board. By some form of miracle, they almost immediately receive hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in funding from billionaires. Next, they find themselves gaining favorable coverage on right-wing media—Daily Caller, Breitbart, and Fox News…. ”
Employing these strategies, Cunningham discovers: “What we see is not just that Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, and No Left Turn in Education are tied in together, but they are all incorporated into a right-wing network that includes Charles Koch, organizational and individual members of the right-wing Council for National Policy, and other extremist funders, including Julie Fancelli, who helped to underwrite the January 6, 2021, Washington D.C. Stop the Steal rally.”
Cunningham explores three organizations in detail: Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, and No Left Turn in Education. Here, for example is what he discovered about Parents Defending Education (PDE), which emerged two years ago in Virginia. Its board members include five members affiliated with the far-right. Nicole Neily, a board member and the organization’s president, “is an established political operative with Koch-affiliated non-profit interest groups. According to Sourcewatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, Neily has previously worked with Koch affiliates, the Franklin News Foundation, Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights, and the independent Women’s Forum. She has also served on the boards of Young Voices and Young Voices for Liberty. She is a ‘volunteer instructor’ at the Leadership Institute (which handles trainings and conference activities for Moms for Liberty). Neily has a background in public relations and communications work; many of the supposed grassroots education reform leaders have extensive backgrounds in communications. She was also the initial president of Speech First, a Koch-connected legal interest that files lawsuits against universities’ affirmative action and bias response policies… For PDE major vendors, Neily immediately turned to contractors who had worked for Speech First: the Republican law firm Consovoy McCarthy, paid $950,000 by Free Speech in 2018, and the communications firm Creative Response Concepts, paid $106,000 in 2018. From the start, PDE was promoting itself as a grassroots volunteer organization. Affording such contractors right away belies that. ‘We just all work from home,’ Neily told the Columbus (OH) Dispatch. ‘We’re all working moms.'”
Here is some of what Cunningham calls Parents Defending Education’s creation story: “PDE announced its launch via Twitter on March 30, 2021, and immediately took up Christopher Rufo’s anti-Critial Race Theory campaign. The very next day, its emergence was reported by Fox News. PDE’s announcement quickly reverberated through the right-wing media echo chamber with coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and the Federalist. By May 3, the moms working from home were getting coverage in the Washington Post. In June 2021, Neily explained to the conservative Daily Caller how PDE thrusts (usually anonymous) parent complaints into right-wing media: ‘Maybe they don’t know how to get it in the right hands, but we do. We know a lot of reporters, and we’re happy to share those things.'”Cunningham adds: Real grassroots groups often struggle to get space in their community newspapers.” And he adds further: “Neily’s compensation for her ‘work from home’ job was $195,688.”
In the rest of the report, Cunningham dissects the funding and allies and communications firms of Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education. The overall story is of Astroturf parents’ organizations playing the race card to frighten legislators about the public schools.
It is an old story. In Let Them Eat Tweets, a book published in 2020, two other political scientists, Yale’s Jacob Hacker and Berkeley’s Paul Pierson, remind readers that, “Long before the ascent of Donald Trump… a Republican president tried to realign the electorate through appeals to white workers discomfited by racial and cultural change.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 42) This was Nixon’s Southern Strategy, used by subsequent politicians to agitate voters who could be made fearful through racist appeals. When Hacker and Pierson published Let Them Eat Tweets, the Astroturf parents’ groups spreading alarm about so-called “critical race theory” had not yet emerged, but Trump and the far-right had been accelerating the politics of hate because it worked for them. Hacker and Pierson add: “The false narratives boosted by right-wing media generally have two characteristics: they incite tribalism and they escalate a sense of threat.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 103
So… what does this have to do with the politics of public schooling in February, 2023? A week ago, this blog traced a history of the plutocratic attempt to privatize education. Now we are watching as that strategy comes to fruition. Already at the beginning of their legislative sessions, two states, Iowa and Utah, have fast-tracked huge, Education Savings Account voucher bills through their legislatures. The Astroturf parents’ groups operating—with money from Koch and other far-right funders—have provided a path to an unusually large expansion of vouchers.
Education Week‘s Libby Stanford outlines the politics: “Emboldened by frustrations with pandemic-era policies and battles over what schools are teaching, conservative parents and politicians have accelerated a push for school choice policies that would funnel public funds into private schools. Though school choice has been debated for decades, the movement is in a unique moment as advocates use parent concerns over COVID-era mask requirements, curriculum addressing race, gender, and sexuality, and library book content to bolster their argument that families should have more options outside of traditional public schools. And the school choice proposals states are considering—and in some cases, have already passed—are more sweeping than previous iterations.”
Stanford catches us up on what is happening across the states as legislative sessions get underway: “Already this year, lawmakers in at least 11 states—Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia—have introduced and in some cases (Iowa and Utah), passed school choice bills… (M)any of the bills would establish or expand private school voucher and education savings account programs that give families public funds to pay for tuition at private schools, cover the costs of homeschooling, or pay for other schooling expenses… Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have some sort of policy on the books supporting school choice, including tax credits for parents who switch to different schools, private school scholarship programs, and education savings accounts…. Of those states, eight have education savings accounts in which the state gives eligible families a set amount of public funds to cover school-related costs including private school, online learning, tutoring, community college, and college expenses. Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have voucher programs, which are often branded as scholarships, giving students all or part of their public per-pupil funding to pay for private school….”
Stanford adds: “Until now, school choice programs have mostly been too small to have much of an impact on traditional public schools, but as states pass more sweeping school choice policies, there is a concern that lawmakers are starting down (what Tulane University’s Douglas Harris calls) ‘a slippery slope.'”
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson warn that heated culture war politics turn the political debate away from the merits of specific policies to address serious issues and instead toward a clash of identities—away from “‘this policy versus that policy’ to ‘us versus them.'” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 109). Driven by the emotions of the culture war, the political battle about vouchers avoids practical policy concerns: How will public schools survive if states fund vouchers without increasing the taxes that would pay for them? How can our legislators propose to cut taxes and at the same time increase the number of students taking vouchers out of the state public education budget?
The expansion of private school tuition vouchers and Education Savings Accounts is an attack on the funding of public schooling, an attack which will ultimately undermine what is good for us all—a system of democratically governed public schools designed to serve the needs of each particular student and protect by law the rights of all students.