Thomas Ultican: 11 MAGA Ladies against Public Education
Thomas Ultican takes a look at some work by education scholar Maurice Cunningham and his debunking of the “ordinary moms” driving the opposition to public education. Reposted with permission.
For the past few years, I have been increasingly impressed by the work of Boston’s Maurice Cunningham. He is a political science professor from the University of Massachusetts who also holds a Juris Doctorate. His latest work is “Merchants of Deception” published by the Network for Public Education (NPE). While reading the paper, I was struck by the dominant position of women in the classical liberal effort to end taxpayer supported free public education.
I met Professor Cunningham last spring at the NPE conference in Philadelphia. On the last evening there, we had a chance to share drinks in the hotel bar. I learned that he is a typically misguided Boston sports fan cheering for the Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots. However, he seemed like a good guy who will still talk to me even after my Padres purloined the Red Sox star shortstop Xander Bogaerts. But I digress.
“Merchants of Deception” documents the disingenuous framing around the establishment of organizations dedicated to destroying public education. In this piece, I focus on the leadership of the National Parents Union (NPU), No Left Turn in Education (NLTE), Parents Defending Education (PDE) and Moms for Liberty (M4L). They all claim some form of being created by moms upset at their public school and taking action. In Cunningham’s paper, he shows that with their funding and media connections these are not typical moms. They are mostly communications professionals with a long history of working for organizations on the right. In a previous post, Cunningham shared,
“Mercedes Schneider has figured out the grassroots angle in Parents Defending Education: Prefab “Grassroots”— …. 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 astrotyuf, but astroturf with its brown shirt on.”
Professor Cunningham used the Little Sis data base and orthographer to illustrate the support for three of these organizations. The live map for the image below which allows access to documentation can be accessed here.
Moms for Liberty
M4L was legally formed January 1, 2021. It is infamous for disruption of school board meetings over its opposition to critical race theory (CRT), teaching about race and LGBTQ+ rights or having any books on those subjects available in school libraries.
Bridget Ziegler is one of M4L’s three founding board of directors. She left the organization in 2022 for political reasons but still actively supports it.
“She followed a 2014 appointment from then-Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, with two successful bids for re-election, raising tens of thousands of dollars each time in what used to be low-profile, low-dollar races.”
“Ziegler, who is seeking a third term on the School Board, has articulated deeply conservative Republican Party positions on critical race theory and parental rights, including speaking out against mandatory masking for students and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.”
She won a third term.
Her husband Chris Ziegler is the Vice Chairman of the Florida Republican Party. He expects M4L members will become foot soldiers in Ron DeFascist’s political campaigns. Bridget Ziegler helped DeFascist shape his “parental rights” agenda and stood next to the governor when he signed legislation limiting discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools.
Tina Descovich is another founding board member of M4L. From 2016 to 2020, she served on the Brevard School Board. She lost her seat in the August 2020 primary election.
Descovich states on her LinkedIn page that she is, “A creative senior communications professional with experience in Strategic Message Delivery, Media Relations Management, Brand & Graphic Development, Stakeholder Engagement, Government Relations, Corporate Relations, Crisis Management, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving.”
Descovich served on the executive staff for the United States Army Commanding General at Fort Lee. For the past 15 years, she has worked as a communications consultant.
Tiffany Justice is the third founding board member of M4L. From 2016 to 2020, she served on the school board of Indian River County. Before the 2020 election, columnist Ray McNulty of the Vero News urged her not to run for reelection. He stated, “Besides, Justice has played her way out of the lineup, proving repeatedly over the past four years that she is ill-equipped for, and overmatched by, a job that requires more than caring about kids.”
Justice is a supporter of the “Don’t say Gay” law. NBC quoted her saying the law is needed to fight a “transgender contagion.”
Of the founders of these new culture war platforms used to attack public education, Justice has the fewest professional credentials. She shows no work background and though claiming to have attended American University in Washington DC, she lists no degrees earned.
Marie Rogerson replaced Bridget Zeigler on the M4L board and became the executive director of program development. This close friend of Tina Descovich earned a political science degree from Brigham Young University’s Rexburg, Idaho campus. She managed Descovich’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns for school board.
Rogerson is a campaign consultant who completed the Learning Institute’s Leadership Academy. Learning Institute was founded in 1979 by Morton C. Blackwell. Its web site states, “The Institute teaches conservatives of all ages how to succeed in politics, government, and the media.”
She previously worked for Rep. Randy Fine, who has widely spread anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and supported anti-LGBTQ bills including the “Don’t Say Gay” law, and pushed for bans on lifesaving, evidence-based healthcare for transgender youth. His campaign donated to M4L.
Julie Fancelli is the daughter of Publix grocery store chain founder George Jenkins. In 2020, Forbes magazine listed her family as the 39th richest in America with assets of $8.8 billion. She is not a founder or a leader of M4L, but when she gifted them $50,000 that represented all but $762 that M4L had raised.
The Washington Post reports that Fancelli was a major donor to the former president and stated, “Eight days before the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, a little-known Trump donor living thousands of miles away in the Tuscan countryside quietly wired a total of $650,000 to three organizations that helped stage and promote the event.”
Parents Defending Education
PDE was incorporated as a nonprofit in Virginia on January 21, 2021. Because it is a relatively new organization, little is yet known for certain about the funders and how large that funding is. However, the founder’s relationship with Charles Koch sponsored organizations is abundantly clear. It is a hard right organization.
Nicole Neily the founder of PDE has a long history of working for Koch sponsored organizations. Her LinkedIn page shares that she worked for the CATO Institute from 2006 to 2009 and she described herself as a “Think tank executive specializing in coalition building, management, public relations, and fundraising in the nonprofit/advocacy sphere and private sector crisis communications.”
In 2018, Neily founded Speech First where she was the only employee and President. Source Watch reported,
“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.”
The PDE 2021 tax form shows that in their first year of operation, they took in $3,178,345 and that Neily’s salary and benefits totaled more than $195,000.
Erika Sanzi has a long history of profiting from supporting the privatization of public education. She is the new Director of Outreach for PDE. Her 2020 LinkedIn page shared this brief resume,
“Senior Writer Education Post Since October 2014; Senior Visiting Fellow Thomas B. Fordham Institute Since October 2016; Interim Dean of Students and Spanish teacher Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy Jan 2012 – Jun 2013 Rhode Island Charter; Dean of Students Paul Cuffee Charter School 2010-2012 Providence Charter School; Spanish Teacher Wellesley High School 1998 – 2002; BA Spanish University of Vermont.” (This information came from my 2020 notes and is no longer available on her LinkedIn Page.)
Like Neily, Sanzi is making big money attacking public education. Blogger Mercedes Schneider shows that in 2015 she was paid $84,000 by Education Post the billionaire financed media outlet. In 2016, they paid her $120,000, in 2017 $131,000 and in 2018 $121,000.
Karol Markowicz is a journalist from New York City where she writes for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post and contributes to Fox News. The PDE 2021 tax form shows the she is on their board of directors.
A biography notes that she was born in the Soviet Union but grew up in Brooklyn. She keeps her private life very private. She is married but her husband’s name is not known. She has children.
In December 2021, Markowitz and her kids relocated to Florida, saying, “I am leaving New York City, the place where my husband and I both grew up and where we had planned to raise our own kids. The response to COVID-19 in New York, in particular where children are concerned, has driven our family out.”
Her opinion pieces make it clear she has very right wing views. She is a big fan of Ron DeFascist of Florida and has a very low opinion of anyone left of Kublai Khan. She actually wrote an article with the title “Democrats need to stop urging political violence.”
National Parent Union
Professor Cunningham observed, “Apparently, the Waltons [WalMart] were pleased with the progress of Massachusetts Parents United because in 2020, they promoted Rodrigues as the president of a new venture, National Parents Union”(Merchants page 18). The creation story presented says that two “Latina women” Keri Rodrigues of Massachusetts and Alma Marquez of Los Angeles joined together to create a new model in parent activism based on the labor movement. While NPU has shunned most culture war issues they do support school choice and oppose teachers unions. While some view them as being on the left, Charles Koch and the Walton family are sending them financial support.
Keri Rodrigues is the President and co-founder of NPU. She endured foster care, survived abuse, and was expelled from high school. Rodrigues eventually earned a GED and enrolled at Temple University to study broadcast journalism. She left school before graduating to take a job with CBS News radio.
After five years with CBS, she became a talk-show host at WSAR earning the moniker “pint-sized Portuguese pundit.”
She became a consultant to Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts. Soon after, she was state director of Families for Excellent Schools. This is the organization that in 2016 directed massive amounts of dark money into “question 2” the ballot initiative to lift the states charter school cap. After that losing debacle, she founded the Massachusetts Parent Union.
Alma Marquez was an original co-founder of NPU which became a non-profit in March 2020. She was elected to a three year term as Secretary-Treasurer. Strangely and never explained, Marquez disappeared from NPU after mid-August 2020.
Her being an actual Latina is integral to the NPU creation story of two “Latina women” joining forces. It was probably more important that Marquez was well connected in LA school choice circles. The billionaire created Education Post reported on the NPU Los Angeles kickoff event,
“Among those standing with them were the former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and Peter Cunningham, the former Assistant Secretary for the Department of Education under the Obama Administration. Cunningham is also the founder of Education Post, where Rodriquez and Marquez met two years prior to the launch of NPU.”
Marquez is a born and raised LA girl who was enticed into the school choice movement by her trusted mentor and LA school board member Monica Garcia. Marquez wrote, “I didn’t know what charter schools were, but I trusted her judgment so I met with Steve Barr and Marshall Tuck, who were then founders and CEOs of Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles, respectively.” Marquez took a position at Green Dot.
No Left Turn in Education
NLTE was founded in the fall of 2020. It may be the most virulently anti-public schools, anti-teacher, anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQ of all these new education “reform movements.” Its founder has equated “the efforts of educators to that of Pol Pot, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler” and called black bigotry towards whites’ a “very real problem” plus pushed anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. The NLTE web page’s tab “Be Informed” leads to forceful articles claiming that public schools are indoctrinating students with a woke ideology and are sexualizing children. They take a strong stand against CRT, the 1619 Project and woke math and science.
Elana Yaron Fishbein is the founder, CEO and spokesperson for NLTE. She grew up in Isreal where Fishbein was awarded a bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Hebrew University. After immigrating to the United States, she completed a masters concentrated on social change from Rutgers University and earned a doctorate from University of Pennsylvania specializing in management and program evaluation.
She has been a repeat guest of Fox News. After her first interview with Tucker Carlson, her FaceBook following supposedly jumped from fewer than 200 to more than 30,000 followers. However, Dr. Cunningham reports (Merchants page 14), “Even though the Carlson segment had supposedly brought in thousands of new NLTE members in April of 2021, I couldn’t find them.”
These new groups promoting privatization of public schools are clearly not products of grassroots development. M4L, PDE and NLTE have engaged in a withering assault on publicly funded schools. The organizations were developed by professionals with a continuing history of support from the Walton Family, Charles Koch, The Bradley Foundation and others. So, what do these billionaires want?
“When you have public education … one of the biggest problems for the libertarians is that it’s funded through taxes. . . they see taxation truly as a form of theft and robbery.”
“The Koch influence machine is multifaceted and complex and I am just telling you in a very honest way, there’s a huge difference between the marketing materials produced by Americans for Prosperity (Koch’s political organization) and the behind the scenes actual political philosophy. There’s a huge difference.
“And here’s the actual political philosophy. Government is bad. Public education must be destroyed for the good of all American citizens in this view. So the ultimate goal is to dismantle the public education system entirely and replace it with a privately run education system, which the operatives in this group believe in a sincere way is better for everybody.”