A loose network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks is quietly lending firepower to local activists engaged in culture war fights in schools across the country.
They are often drawn by parents who are angry about school policies regarding racial history and COVID-19 protocols such as mask mandates. However, these groups are often managed by political operatives or lawyers ready to escalate local disputes.
A wealthy suburb of Milwaukee had a law firm that was heavily funded by a conservative foundation, which has fought climate change mitigation, and that has connections to former President Donald Trump’s efforts in overturning the 2020 election. This helped parents to recall Mequon–Thiensville school board members. The board’s hiring a diversity consultant was the main reason for the recall. Parents Defending Education is a new advocacy group that promotes the Wisconsin parents’ strategies as a model.
Loudoun County, Virginia: A spokesperson for the Justice Department in Trump’s administration rallied parents to support a recall effort that was triggered by opposition to a district’s racial equity plan. A leader of a national network representing parents against anti-racist school programs in Indiana helped a mother get a lawyer after the superintendent of her district blocked her from following him on Twitter.
This support network is a sign of the amount of energy and resources that are being put into political debate at the schools. Republicans believe that the efforts will lay the foundation for a comeback next year in congressional elections. Many see the right-leaning movement as a reminiscence of the 10 year old GOP takeover.
Dan Lenington, a conservative lawyer at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty said, “It seems very tea-party-ish to me.” He also stated that Dan Lenington has provided free legal advice to many parent groups seeking or weighing recalls of school boards, including the one in Mequon. These are the ingredients to have an impact on future elections.
The Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based non-profit that supports conservative causes, partially funds Lenington’s group. Cleta Mitchell (a GOP lawyer) was Trump’s secretary during his attempt to reverse the 2020 election results. She has worked since to push for stricter state voting laws.
Some opponents have labeled the groups “astroturf”, similar to the tea party movement. This is activism that powerful interests make look like grassroots organizing.
Jeffrey Henig, a Columbia University professor and author on nationalization of education, stated that “outsiders tap into some genuine concerns but the framing the issues are generally largely regularized by National Groups.”
However, advocates and outside support argue that they are harnessing real outrage to counter the disproportionate influence liberal groups have in schools.
Amber Schroeder (39-year-old mother of four) said that there is a misperception that this is part a national right-wing agenda. She is leading the Mequon recall. “We are the ones fighting back against the extreme liberal agenda of the teachers union.”
Ballotpedia lists about 30 active recall campaigns for school boards across the country. Many of these are focused on issues related to anti-racism education and training in schools. This is often called critical race theory. Some were prompted in part by discussions about school policies regarding transgender students or pandemic public healthcare measures.
Local parent activists are quick and eager to take credit for their work. Outside groups that offer legal assistance, research, organizing tools, media training, and other support are often reluctant or unable to talk about their roles.
Parents Defending Education is one of them. It was founded in January in Arlington, Virginia and is dedicated to fighting indoctrination within the classroom.
Nicole Neily, the president of Parents Defending Education, sent an email to The Associated Press stating that she created Parents Defending Education “because we believe our kids deserve to learn how and where to think”
Neily stated that the group is not involved in recall efforts in Mequon. However, the website promotes the campaign of Mequon activists. The group posts, as a guide, the Freedom of Information Act request from parents, Mequon’s case, to its national database of parent “incident report” reports.
Neily declined to identify Parents Defending Education’s funding sources. The group is exempt from tax and therefore cannot make public its donors. According to the website, Neily worked for conservative groups such as the Independent Women’s Forum or Cato Institute.
Another influential group is No Left Turn in Education. This organization has grown to 78 chapters in over 25 states since its founding last year by Elana Fischbein.
Fishbein has provided free legal representation to parents who are fighting with school districts over curriculum issues since December. Many of these lawyers are associated with similar firms to Lenington’s, such as the Liberty Justice Center or Pacific Legal Foundation. These organizations also receive funding through the Bradley Foundation. Dick Uihlein is a prominent GOP donor and a shipping supply billionaire.
A spokesperson for Uihlein declined to comment. The Bradley Foundation didn’t return messages.
Fishbein said that the transition from a local mom to a nationally-recognized conservative activist was quick.
Fishbein stated that a year ago, there were only a few moms living in my suburban Philadelphia home. “Three Weeks later, Tucker Carlson was my guest and I had over a million people visiting my Facebook page in a matter of days.”
Fishbein and other leaders of similar organizations believe that conservative activism in schools has exploded because parents are more attentive to their children’s schoolwork while remote learning occurs.
Fishbein stated that “now this whole problem with radical indoctrination adds to their agenda.” This is a huge fight.
It is a fight that will likely help Republicans in the next congressional election, according to Ian Prior, an ex-Justice Department official and now executive director of Fight for Schools. Prior is currently working to recall Loudoun County board members.
You’ll need a team. A command staff is essential. He said that you’ll need the “army of moms” at a conservative conference held in Texas in July.
Schroeder could be one of them, as she describes her past political activity other than voting as “zero”.
Schroeder was frustrated by the $42,000 district contract with Milwaukee diversity consultant Blaquesmith last year. He reached out to Scarlett Johnson, a fellow Mequon mother of 46 who had studied strategies for challenging school boards via No Left Turn’s website.
Johnson observed that “all the critical race theory buzzwords” were present, referring specifically to the Blaquesmith online seminars she had viewed. “It would be a bad thing to slip into a more race-conscious and race-focused society.”
Schroeder reached to Lenington to argue for the group’s right of assembly when Mequon police requested parents to sign a petition at the park.
Although the letter was provided at no cost, it allowed parents to return to their park.
It was also an opportunity for Lenington, who lobby at the state Capitol to invite Johnson, Schroeder, and Schroeder, to testify in Madison at a legislative hearing for legislation that would require school districts make all their curriculum public.