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Schools are the latest battleground in the culture wars. Protests over issues such as critical race theory, masks and vaccines have cropped up all over the state, including in the towns of Guilford, New Canaan, Glastonbury, Haddam, Cheshire, Bristol and Fairfield. The protesters often characterize themselves as concerned parents. This may be partially true, but it is not the whole story. If you dig deep enough, you will find a web of dark money fueling political operatives in so-called “astroturf” groups — those that purport to be grassroots but are in fact formed and funded by hidden corporate and political sponsors. Their agenda has little to do with improving public education.Protesters have a right to state their opinions (even suicidal ones in the case of vaccine opposition). But as the right-wing agenda increasingly infiltrates small towns, members of local school boards might find themselves portrayed as purveyors of an “increasingly hostile” threat to the community “rooted in Marxism” who will “stop at nothing” as they are “trying to socially replace you.” Those are words from the websites of the Center For Renewing America and its Citizens Renewing America Toolkit.
In fact, hostility against board of education members has gotten so ugly that the National School Boards Association this past week asked President Biden for help from federal law enforcement agencies. In reality, most of these folks are hardworking volunteers who are far more concerned with balancing a budget than they are with a radical agenda — be it on the left or the right. And yet, recently in Haddam, police had to escort board members to their cars following a contentious meeting in which anti-maskers shouted through a bullhorn and drowned out much of the proceedings.
Clearly, something is afoot. Why is this happening suddenly and simultaneously in so many different places around the state (and indeed the country)? Why is the pattern so similar? Why does it seem peculiar to affluent Connecticut towns? Why do some protests turn disruptive? Why pick on CRT, which schools don’t even teach (it’s a post-secondary pedagogical tool)? This doesn’t sound like something that just happened to occur to parents at a local bake sale.
The explanation may lie with Steve Bannon. According to Bannon, “This is the Tea Party to the 10th power,” and “The path to save the nation is very simple. It’s going to go through the school boards.” Before he was pardoned by Trump, Bannon was the guy arrested at sea off Westbrook on a Chinese billionaire’s yacht for allegedly siphoning over a million dollars from a “We Build the Wall” scheme. According to news reports, he was also accused by an ex-wife of objecting to the Archer School in Los Angeles for his daughters because, she said, he “didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.”
The phenomenon may also be explained by Nicole Neily — the president of Parents Defending Education, whose targets include several Connecticut towns. PDE describes itself as a “grassroots” organization, and Neily once was quoted as saying, “We’re all working moms.” But according to several sources including Sourcewatch, Neily is a veteran operative of the Koch network. She’s not alone. Other astroturf operatives include Russ Vought, a former Trump official whose group publishes the “Toolkit” for taking over school boards; Christopher Rufo, whose anti-CRT activism earned him an invitation to the Trump White House; and Keri Rodriques, who was reportedly paid $388,000 in 2017 and 2018 for her advocacy work. Anti-CRT activity seems a profitable cottage industry for the apparatchiks of MAGA world.
Dark money is hard to ferret out because astroturf groups do not disclose their funders. But some information can be found. Among the sources are MassPoliticsProfs.org, the blog of Diane Ravitch, UnKochMyCampus.org, and a book called “Outside Money in School Board Elections.” Google searches also help. Our information is based largely on these sources.
A picture emerges of a shadowy and labyrinthine network of astroturf groups funded by big money. Funders include the Koch network, Turning Points USA, the DeVos Family Foundation, the Ed Uihlein Foundation, Donors’ Trust, and the Heritage Foundation. Some astroturf groups are local (Connecticut Parents Union). Most are national. Many have happy names like Citizens for Renewing America, the Center for Renewing America, Free to Learn, National Parents Union, Massachusetts Parents United, No Left Turn in Education, Moms for Liberty, and Fight for Schools. Some encourage their readers to report incidents (i.e., spy on teachers). One group calling itself School Board Watchlist models disruptive behavior on its website.
Our point is not necessarily to question the sincerity of the self-appointed disrupters, misguided though they are. But we believe they are pawns in a darker power grab of which they are probably unaware. The next time you hear that public schools are a threat to freedom, it’s good idea to follow the money.
Christine Palm is the state representative for the 36th Connecticut General Assembly District. Frank Hanley Santoro is a former assistant U.S. attorney.
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