- As the nation continues to reckon with the role racism plays in society, a tiny but extremely vocal minority is determined to turn our classrooms into battlegrounds for their vicious culture wars.
- The peddling of misinformation has led to a sharp increase in threats aimed at educators and school board officials, many of whom have been intimidated and threatened.
- However, many candidates who ran on "anti-woke" platforms lost their elections. It is critical that educators and parents continue to support candidates who reject false narratives and support public schools.
Parents and educators agree that all students, regardless of their race or where they live, deserve a safe and well-resourced public school where they can learn and grow. By working together through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and educators have only strengthened their critical partnerships.
Over the past two years, the country has heard countless inspiring stories about students, educators, and parents coming together to support one another and serve their local communities. From hosting food banks and vaccine drives, to distributing school supplies and winter coats, our schools have played a pivotal role in not only educating our children, but also keeping them safe and looking out for the wellbeing of their families and communities.
But as millions of students, educators, and staff members continue to navigate the current school year, they’ve also been forced to contend with threats beyond the emergence of new COVID variants. As the nation continues to reckon with the role racism plays in our society, a tiny but extremely vocal minority of voices is determined to turn our classrooms into battlegrounds for their vicious culture wars.
These radical groups are using social media to spread disinformation and stoke fear about race in the classroom, pushing for laws to ban books about Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights figures, and seeking to censor teachers and deny students the right to a truthful and honest education. As the pandemic surges across the country, these same bad actors are promoting deadly COVID conspiracy theories and fighting against science-based, common sense measures that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Association of Pediatrics, and other experts recommend to keep our children safe in the classroom.
This peddling of misinformation and fear has led to a sharp increase in threats aimed at educators and school board officials, many of whom have been intimidated and threatened in alarming numbers across the country—outside school grounds, across social media, and, most notoriously, at local school board meetings.
Small groups of radicalized adults, egged on by these bad actors, have been whipped into a furor over COVID safety protocols and the false notion that children are being taught “critical race theory.” Some of these protests have ended in chaos, with school board members in Virginia receiving death threats and protesters in San Diego County forcing their way into a school board meeting and declaring themselves the newly-elected board.
Educators across the country have also shared horror stories about the assaults and abuses they’ve had to endure for simply doing their jobs. Teachers in California and Texas were physically assaulted over wearing masks, and in Arizona, a group of men were arrested and charged after attempting to abduct an elementary school principal for following COVID-19 guidelines.
Although social media platforms have proven to be a valuable resource for maintaining communities remotely amid the pandemic, they have only amplified these alarming trends. The unchecked spread of misinformation and dangerous fads—including a recent challenge encouraging students to slap their teachers and record these assaults on video—has fostered a culture of fear and violence with educators and other leaders in school communities as targets.
The National Education Association sent a letter to social media executives in October urging them to put the safety of students and educators over profits by helping to end the stream of propaganda on their platforms fueling these attacks. The letter came after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced at the start of October that the Department of Justice would meet with federal, state, Tribal, territorial, and local law enforcement officials “to discuss strategies for addressing this disturbing trend” of threats against teachers and school board officials.
While these protests have drawn concern from educators and federal officials, right-wing media outlets have portrayed these demonstrations as organic grassroots efforts driven by parents who are merely concerned for their children’s education.
But many of the advocacy groups working behind the scenes to help orchestrate these protests and limit discussions about race in public schools are supported by a web of dark money and right-wing operatives looking to exploit culture war grievances for political gain. While these groups claim they are defending against “indoctrination,” their real aim is to manufacture divisive misinformation that can be used to stoke unjust fears across the country. By doing so, they hope to silence teachers’ voices and replace school boards with ideologically-driven members, thereby destroying the very fabric of public education from the inside.
Much of the more recent furor has focused on critical race theory (CRT)—a decades-old, graduate-level academic framework centered on the belief that systemic racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions and law.
Many politicians and right-wing media personalities have deliberately conflated any talk of equity, inclusion, and diversity in public schools with the teaching of critical race theory. And the CRT-related protests have had a chilling effect on discussions regarding race and systemic racism in the classroom, which educators say are needed for students to fully understand our current political climate.
Tim Chambers, an expert in monitoring and countering internet disinformation campaigns at Dewey Square, likened the spread of disinformation to a “full-court press” of culture war grievances.
"The anti-CRT effort is textbook disinformation, manufactured and funded by right-wing think tanks and boosted by programmatically targeted ads to inflame users,” Chambers said. “It is from well-funded orgs working with suspect local groups on the ground, and with the ever-present background push from Fox News on broadcast and cable behind it all.”
These disinformation efforts obscure what’s really playing out in communities across the country, and take the focus off of helping students recover from the pandemic, as NEA President Becky Pringle has noted.
“At a time when our students need us most, and when parents and educators have been working together in partnership to do everything we can to support them, it is unconscionable that this orchestrated disinformation campaign has resulted in educators and school board members being targeted, threatened, and harassed,” says Pringle.
“We must reject false narratives that distract and divide us, and come together to ensure that students have what they need to succeed. We should focus on addressing the educator shortage that has only grown more severe during the pandemic. And with funding available to schools from the American Rescue Plan, we must advocate for every student to have access to broadband, nutritious meals, safe buildings, and the specialized supports they need.”
An investigation conducted by NBC News in June identified at least 165 local and national groups across the U.S. working to turn disagreements over COVID mandates and lessons on race and gender into divisive wedge issues that can be manipulated for political purposes. Many of these groups are directly or indirectly supported by larger conservative think tanks, media outlets, and organizations that amplify cultural grievances around education to galvanize voters.
The outrage machine surrounding CRT, public schools, and local school boards has already led to legislative responses. Education news outlet Chalkbeat identified 28 states that have attempted to “restrict education on racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics.”
Nine states (Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, New Hampshire, South Carolina and North Dakota passed anti-CRT legislation that would ban teachers from including discussions of systemic racism in their curriculums, although Arizona’s law was later overruled by the state’s supreme court.
These efforts have been partly influenced by “model” legislation promoted by conservative advocacy groups, including the Heritage Foundation and Citizens for Renewing America.
Heritage and the American Legislative Exchange Council have also been working to engage activists across the country around CRT and related education issues by holding public webinars warning about the dangers posed by anti-racism lessons in public schools.
"You’ve got groups who are coaching these people in media relationships and how to frame their issues, so it’s not a coincidence that the language being used in many of these localities echoes similar themes,” Henig said.
The Groups Behind the Chaos
One of the largest advocacy groups behind protests against school boards across the country is No Left Turn in Education. The organization was founded last year by Elana Yaron Fishbein, a mother of two children in a suburban Philadelphia school district who started the group after objecting to the school’s lessons about racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. Now with state chapters across the U.S., No Left Turn offers tools, resources, and form letters and petitions for activists looking “to expose the radical indoctrination in K-12 education.”
Then there is Parents Defending Education (PDE), a Virginia-based organization that purports to advocate on behalf of concerned parents and encourages activists to “document examples of woke indoctrination” with the group, which it then shares on its “IndoctriNation Map.” Some of the examples of issues flagged for the map include schools that encourage “anti-racism,” “equity,” and are “promoting activism.”
David Armiak, research director for the nonprofit watchdog Center for Media and Democracy, said it can be difficult to keep track of the number of organizations popping up that are attempting to capitalize off of culture war issues.
"A lot of this is very sophisticated groups, like Parents Defending Education, following similar strategies and responding out of nowhere to engage on these issues,” Armiak said. “When you start a new nonprofit, nobody really knows who backs it, and the filing probably won’t come out for a while. So this might not even be an issue by this time next year when we see their first filing.”
Indeed, when Media Matters announced in December that it had obtained an IRS filing for Parents Defending Education, it found that the group is helmed by a number of activists affiliated with conservative funding networks and right-wing media outlets that have been manufacturing outrage about CRT in public schools.
Other groups claiming to represent concerned parents are either led by or receive most of their funding from conservative donors and operatives. Ahead of the 2019 Virginia gubernatorial election, a Loudoun County-based organization—Fight for Schools—emerged as a vocal opponent of CRT in public schools and pushed to recall the county’s school board members. Although Ian Prior, the co-founder of the group, presented himself in interviews as merely an upset father, he is a longtime Republican strategist who previously served as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ spokesman. And the group’s focus on CRT, which became a prominent campaign issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race, helped it attract significant funding from prominent GOP donors ahead of the election.
Citizens for Renewing America, a conservative advocacy group founded by President Trump's former budget director Russell Vought, has also become a leading voice on the right against the teaching of anti-racism in schools. The organization he helms offers a 34-page digital toolkit to help activists oppose CRT in schools, even going so far as to note that "whether CRT is currently in your school system is mostly irrelevant to the purpose of this document.”
In addition to providing material support to school board protesters, many of these groups also ask parents to submit complaints about “woke” curriculums in their schools and districts and encourage activists to inundate their local school boards with public records requests. And in states that have passed anti-CRT legislation, these groups also work as heavy-handed enforcers of the draconian laws, often attacking any lessons or materials that even touch upon race or civil rights.
In New Hampshire, a chapter of Moms for Liberty—a conservative advocacy group that operates in 35 states—offered a $500 reward to the first person who successfully caught a teacher violating the state’s new law restricting lessons about race and racism in the classroom. A Tennessee-based chapter of Moms for Liberty also filed a complaint with the state alleging that reading materials included in the Williamson County Schools’ K-5 curriculum—including books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruby Bridges—violated the state’s anti-CRT law. The Tennessee Department of Education rejected the chapter’s claim that assigning the books represented “anti-American” teaching.
In addition to providing material support to school board protesters, many of these groups also ask parents to submit complaints about “woke” curriculums in their schools and districts and encourage activists to inundate their local school boards with public records requests.
Whether they’re working behind the scenes to manufacture parent outrage or using legal complaints and on-the-ground protests to intimidate school boards and educators, these supposed grassroots groups often have one thing in common—deep-pocketed donors who are looking out for their own political needs. Peeking behind the curtain shows that some of the biggest supporters of these groups are longtime conservative donors who have attempted for years to warp public education for their own purposes—from the Koch family and the DeVos family to former Trump officials and The Federalist Society.
The network of operatives and funders behind these groups can be particularly useful when the inorganic anti-CRT movement faces any pushback from officials or educators. Just look at what happened after the the Justice Department announced that it would look into threats against educators, when a coalition of conservative groups and activists released a letter urging parents “to request documents under the Freedom of Information Laws” from their school districts.
“It’s a giveaway that it’s an inorganic movement because their real tactic isn’t to get records but to have people overwhelm their school boards with record requests,” said Evan Vorpahl, a researcher with the True North Research firm. “When they don’t get any records back, then they can say, ‘they’re hiding it, it’s a conspiracy.’ "
‘A Takeover Attempt’
According to data from Ballotpedia, a website that tracks U.S. elections, conservative activists have launched at least 85 attempts this year to recall 225 school board members—a record number of recalls for a single year, especially given that only 23 states allow for voters to recall school board members.
In Wisconsin, rightwing activists attempted to recall school board members in 11 school districts across the state in 2021. The only effort that successfully reached the ballot was in the Mequon-Thiensville School District (MTSD), north of Milwaukee, where activists tried to recall four of the district’s seven school board members in the Nov. 2 election. All four incumbent school board members easily defeated the recall attempt with close to 60% of the vote after parents showed up at the polls to voice their opposition to this politically-driven effort.
"This is clearly a takeover attempt,” Nancy Urbani, a parent whose children attend school in the district, said before the election. "They want to take over the board and have a supermajority to push through their policies. It has nothing to do with the behavior or the voting patterns of the individuals being recalled.”
Urbani is a member of the Coalition to Support MTSD, a group opposed to the recall effort. Although the recall’s petitioners presented themselves as a grassroots movement, Urbani said that outside groups have been pouring money into the school district—including thousands of dollars spent on Facebook advertisements, outside legal services, and text message campaigns to local voters.
Billionaire Richard Uihlein, a conservative mega-donor who has long supported a variety of right-wing candidates and dark money groups, was the top contributor of the recall effort.
Despite the recall effort in Wisconsin failing, Urbani said she knows why these actors have become so invested in the debate around education.
"I think it’s about controlling the airwaves and the messaging from the ground up,” Urbani said. “If they can control the messaging around critical race theory or whatever the topic is, then they can use it as an example of how we need to be on guard against the ‘liberal agenda.’ And it couldn’t be further from the truth, but people who aren’t engaged in the district will just believe what they see in the news."
Maintaining Trust in Public Schools
As the recent elections in Wisconsin and across the country showed, investing in public schools and supporting pro-public education voices are critical issues for voters. Rightwing groups failed in their efforts to oust incumbent school board members and win campaigns based on anti-CRT fear in Las Cruces, New Mexico and in Guilford, Connecticut. And in Hilliard, Ohio, where right-wing groups campaigned heavily against CRT and masks, the top vote-getter in the school board race was Kara Crowley, a member of the Ohio Education Association, who won with a positive vision for public education in her community.
With outside advocacy groups continuing to try and turn classrooms into the latest front of their culture wars, it’s important for educators to support candidates who will strengthen public schools for all students, and who reject talking points designed to undermine the fabric of education.
Educators and parents must work together to defend public schools and lift up pro-education champions. Despite the efforts of outside advocacy groups to erode trust in this vital partnership, we must all work together to ensure that every student—regardless of their race, zip code, or background—has the well-rounded education they need to pursue their dreams.