April 13, 2021

Maurice Cunningham: Koch Connections and Sham Grassroots of Parents Defending Education

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Maurice Cunningham is an expert in following the money behind ed reform advocacy groups. In this post, he traces the roots of one of the newest astro-turf groups on the block–and those roots turn out to be both familiar and not made of grass. Reposted with permission.

Parents Defending Education is corporate school privatizers going hard right to attack school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers. It’s a dirty game and it’s about as grassroots as say, a Koch political operation.

Mercedes Schneider has figured out the grassroots angle in Parents Defending Education: Prefab “Grassroots”—PDE needs local connections to claim standing in law suits to chill the free speech of any educator who questions white supremacy. Peter Greene minces no words in Parents Defending Education: Astroturf Goes Hard Right:

PDE is particularly odious because of its whole “turn in any teacher or school that offends you” approach to chilling conversation and teaching. This is not just astroturf, but astroturf with its brown shirt on.

So how well has PDE done living up to its self-promotion “as a national grassroots organization?” Really, really badly.

In order to test the grassroots claim I examined the local organizations PDE claims at its IndoctriNation (get it?) map. Wow—it looks like PDE is blanketing the nation. But it’s fake. Two organizations dominate the “grassroots” network: state affiliates of No Left Turn in Education and Moms For Liberty. Mercedes Schneider showed that Parents Defending Education has yet to attain non-profit status from the IRS. Well, neither has No Left Turn in Education or Moms For Liberty. Both are put up jobs to populate PDE’s map and give the appearance of local support. PDE provides links to the Facebook or websites of their “members” so we can see that most of these groups were formed in March or February 2021, rarely earlier. It’s a set up.

Grassroots means folks joining together on the local level in a collective effort to improve their community. Here are some of the membership numbers for No Left Turn in Education affiliates: Alabama, 7; Arkansas, 3; Delaware, 6; Iowa, 2; Idaho, 4; Indiana, 8; Michigan (Betsy DeVos home state), 13; Mississippi, 3; Montana, 2; North Dakota, 2; Massachusetts, 17. Well, you get the idea. And my favorite, Hawaii: 1.

And Moms for Liberty? Arizona, 17; Wright Co, Minnesota, 8; Corpus Christi Nueces, Texas, 70. Both groups have a handful of states with dozens of members and even over a hundred, but almost all of these operations are tied in with the creation of PDE.

If you start alphabetically with No Left Turn in Education Alabama their FB page is bannered with this:

Are those kids adorable or what? So diverse, so happy, so wholesome, so lovely—not a single pimple on their beautiful teenage faces! Why, it’s almost as if they’re . . . models? And you’d better like the pic because it’s on the website of every state affiliate of No Left Turn in Education. So representative of local students!

Moms for Liberty is far right extremism with a cuddly title. It offers to help followers set up a Madison Meetup to discuss the true meaning of the Founding. Readings include the “’Declaration of Independence’ brochure guide by Moms for Liberty” and “How to Read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution” by Paul Skousen, a far right author. His book The Naked Socialist completed the work of his late father W. Cleon Skousen, a supporter of the John Birch Society once described by National Review as an “all-around nutjob.”

Moms for Liberty’s creation story is similar to others in the anti-public education universe: “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” In a year and a half Moms for Liberty’s Form 990 tax returns are likely to show these two patriotic moms hauling down in excess of $150,000 each.

As for who is responsible for collecting the names of these culture warriors, PDE has something called a director of outreach and that is Erika Sanzi. She is a veteran of privatization operations including, as Ms. Schneider shows, the billionaire funded Education Post.  Ms. Schneider details what we know of Ms. Sanzi’s lucrative attachment to the privatization industry: $82,000 from Ed Post in 2015, $120,000 in 2016, $131,000 in 2017, and $121,000 in 2018.

Perhaps it was Ms. Sanzi who recruited another member, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Here is what the Sourcewatch project of the Center for Media and Democracy has to say: “Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has deep ties to the Koch brothers. The organization has received millions in funding from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Claude R. Lambe Foundation, and the Stand Together Trust.” The group is also a pet project of the radical right funders Bradley Foundation and a passel of other anti-democracy billionaires.

Or it could have been PDE president Nicole Neily who brought in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. PDE’s website says “Nicole Neily is the president & founder of Parents Defending Education. She is also the president of Speech First, a national campus free speech organization, and has worked at the Independent Women’s Forum and the Cato Institute.” According to Sourcewatch

Speech First’s president and only listed employee, Nicole Neily has worked for many Koch-affiliated groups. Neily was the president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, the Cato Institute’s manager of external relations, the coalition relations manager for FreedomWorks’ Center for Global Economic Growth, and a “Koch summer fellow for both the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.”

Additionally, Neily is associated with other Koch-affiliated groups. Neily served as a board member for Young Voices and Young Americans for Liberty.

PDE also just added as a “senior fellow” Elizabeth Schultz,  a former school committee person in Fairfax, VA most well-known for carrying water for the Traditional Values Coalition against a motion to include lessons on gender identity and transgender people in sex education classes. Her other major accomplishment is as an underqualified appointee of Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education.

PDE is yet another fake operation acting for right wing billionaires. So who would be dumb or dishonest enough (or both) to fall for the grassroots claim? Fox News, of course.

This looks like another Koch investment in destroying public goods in the United States. Through a joint venture with the Walton Family Foundation called the Vela Education Fund, Koch is underwriting the Christian right Home School Legal Defense Association and the pretend progressive National Parents Union. Still, this front seems more explicitly right wing than many other privatization ventures which have tended to put people of color out front and adopt the veneer of liberalism. So will Massachusetts Parents United reject No Left Turn in Education Massachusetts? Is Stop the Wait RI going to condemn No Left Turn in Education Rhode Island? And will National Parents Union vocally denounce the white supremacy of Parents Defending Education? We’ll be watching.

In the darkness of secrecy, sinister interest and evil in every shape, have full swing. . . . Publicity is the very soul of justice.”—Jeremy Bentham

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money, democracy, and oligarchy.]

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