School Board Disruptions Escalate, Funded By Conservative Dark Money

An escalating series of demonstrations focusing on COVID-19 restrictions in public schools have created dangerous and chaotic conditions for school boards across the country in recent months. Egged on by a cadre of right-wing influencers, concerned parents from across the right-wing spectrum have flocked to local school board meetings in order to protest a new round of public health restrictions. As this narrative developed, a movement built to fight the alleged public adoption of ‘critical race theory’ was quickly redirected to target school boards. Behind the scenes, a shadowy network of conservative dark money entities has spent millions attempting to remake public education in their own image. Helped by a constellation of disinformation artists and alt-right celebrities, conservatives have revived a strategy that helped them gain control of thousands of school board seats during the Reagan era.

A complex network of shared influence ensures a steady stream of income for a wide ecosystem of right-wing influencers and parents’ groups. Funded by groups like the Council for National Policy, advertised by conservative celebrities like Michael Flynn and enforced at the local level by a loose coalition of parents and militia members, the right-wing policy machine has focused all of its energy on the foundations of American public education. As confrontations between parents and school administration continue to escalate, the opportunity for violence only grows.

A Proven Model

School boards have long been a theatre for conflict in the American political sphere. In the early 1990s, conservative luminaries like Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed stood hand in hand at the head of the Christian Coalition of America to capture thousands of school board seats for the Republican Party. The sweeping victory helped the right wing build a grassroots coalition that eventually rose up in the ‘Republican Revolution’ of 1994, ending nearly a decade of Democratic control of Congress. Now in the wake of the return to classes amid a Covid-19 viral surge, school boards have again become a battlefield, a natural point of contact where conflict becomes inevitable. Over 170 school board officials have been targeted for recall this year, more than double any of the previous years recorded, according to Ballotpedia.

The heated topic of mask and vaccine mandates adds fuel to this fire, creating chaotic conditions. In an early incident, police had to be called to a Lansdale, Pennsylvania, middle school on August 11 after a school board argument about mask mandates exploded into threats and shouting in the parking lot. On September 7, Arizona police arrested three men for ambushing a Tucson-area school principal and attempting to place him under citizen’s arrest for ordering a mask mandate. Less than three days later, a group of parents in San Diego County stormed a school board meeting and forced members to leave, calling a quorum and declaring themselves board members.

As these incidents escalate, it’s become critical to understand the nature of the monetary forces driving a business model based on paranoia and fear. In many cases, top-level funding provided to influencers and parents’ groups can often be linked to large conservative foundations and think-tanks. These long-established groups funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars towards smaller conservative projects like No Left Turn in Education or Parents Defending Education, but also to other similarly aligned foundations.

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Following The Money

One of these top-level funders since the beginning of the modern push against public education is the infamous Council for National Policy (CNP), one of the most active and powerful nonprofits in the country. In 2019, CNP’s revenue totaled nearly $3 million. According to Anne Nelson, author of ‘Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right’, CNP “[connects] the manpower and media of the Christian right with the finances of Western plutocrats and the strategy of right-wing Republican political operatives.”

Founded in 1981 by evangelical preacher and “Left Behind” co-creator Tim LeHaye, CNP’s members list has included some of America’s most influential families, from former CNP President Richard DeVos to Elsa Prince and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. The Prince family foundation still works actively with CNP to this day, and donated over $15,000 to the organization and its subsidiaries in 2019, though it is almost certain that many of these donations may go unreported.

One of the CNP’s most effective recent projects has been the funding of hugely influential anti-lockdown and anti-mask groups, most notably the political group America’s Front Line Doctors (AFLD). AFLD rose to national prominence over the summer as one of the main purveyors of conspiracies surrounding the deworming medication ivermectin, which was falsely promoted as an alternative to the COVID-19 vaccine. With hundreds of thousands of followers on Telegram, AFLD offers consultations for prescriptions for the drug for $90 each. Mass chaos followed as orders and customer complaints were ignored en masse.

The leadership of AFLD includes Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation, Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks, and Lisa Nelson of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)- all three are also members of the Council for National Policy. The CNP also receives funding from other conservative groups such as The Bradley Foundation and the Family Research Council. In 2017, education blogger Peter Green reported on a complex plan for public education posted publicly on the Council for National Policy’s own website. Though the post was quickly deleted, the plan serves as a pertinent piece of the larger picture groups like CNP are aiming for.

As reported in Right Wing Watch, “The group’s big picture goal is to eliminate what it calls ‘the worst abuses in current state systems’ while promoting ‘a gradual, voluntary return at all levels to free-market private schools, church schools and home schools as the normative American practice.’” Former CNP President Tony Perkins is also the leader of the Family Research Council, further solidifying ties between the conservative right wing and the former ‘moral majority’. The FRC is at the head of the fight to retake school boards through its political action committee (PAC), FRC Action. Perkins himself wrote in a recent fundraising letter, “FRC Action is offering urgently needed expertise, training materials, guidance, and personal connections to help conservatives win local political campaigns”. He claimed in the letter that more than 1,200 activists attended FRC’s “School Board Boot Camp” program.

Another conservative group with a huge amount of influence is the Leadership Institute, a training organization for political operatives operating out of Virginia. The Institute was founded by Morton Blackwell, a former CNP member. The Leadership Institute is primarily a project of the Koch network, a group of conservative foundations and PACs organized by the billionaire Koch family. They’ve also received money from the DeVos and Prince families, as well as the Cato Institute and the Bradley Foundation. They are part of the State Policy Network, a Koch donor program that spent over $16 million on campus programs for young conservatives across the country. The Institute has had a huge role in growing a new generation of right wing activists. In the last year they’ve been promoting an online training course to “stop the teaching of Critical Race Theory before it destroys the fabric of our nation.” Famous conservative families like the DeVos-Princes, the Kochs, and others donated large sums of money or even developed programs to train activists to target school board meetings. As reported by Right Wing Watch:

Intercessors for America and the Center for Renewing America, the latter run by former Trump administration official Russ Vought, are distributing a toolkit that encourages conservatives to ‘reclaim’ their schools by taking over local school boards through campaigns focused on opposition to critical race theory.

Influencers On The Payroll

While critical race theory does not draw the interaction it once did online, the movement developed in part by the Leadership Institute to fight against it has been repurposed by influencers to push the more relevant cultural talking point of mask mandates in the face of a renewed surge of COVID-19. Mask mandates have proven to be a far more effective culture war issue, especially as the delta variant drives higher infection rates in less vaccinated areas.

Google interactions with terms like ‘mask mandates’ relating to COVID-19 have remained relevant far longer than the term ‘critical race theory’, which peaked in early summer 2021. Research into the psychological nature of conspiracy theories has shown that belief in conspiracy is often tied to complex and disruptive socio-political events – and so as long as Covid-19 remains, it is likely that conspiracy narratives regarding the virus will remain as well. 

Google Trends comparison, “critical race theory” vs “mask mandate” from 1/10/21 to 9/19/21.

A new class of right-wing influencers are largely responsible for building on-the-ground hype around school board meetings, starting almost immediately after the conclusion of the January 6 Capitol riot. Once the paramilitary wing of the American right failed to stop the certification of the Electoral College vote, many right-wing devotees pivoted towards local elections. In the days after the insurrection, the Telegram messaging app was awash with jilted right-wing influencers calling for their followers to run for seats on school boards and other positions of local power. Their followers, many of whom had just been banned from Facebook or Twitter for the first time, were happy to oblige.

A far-right Telegram user encourages running for school boards and local office after the beginning of the Biden administration
A far-right Telegram user encourages running for school boards and local office after the beginning of the Biden administration

Parents’ groups quickly began to form, fueled by the upcoming return to school and a wave of right-wing propaganda about critical race theory. Groups like No Left Turn in Education exploded in growth with hundreds of chapters across the country, intermeshing issues around public education with the larger right-wing conspiracy sphere.

The right-wing media turned quickly to elevate and platform these groups, more than happy to grant interviews to people like Parents Defending Education president Nicole Neily and outreach director Erika Sanzi, both of whom have deep industry ties. As political scientist Maurice Cunningham writes:

Neily is a well-compensated veteran of numerous right wing organizations, including not only Speech First but the Cato Institute…The Education Post, an online publication originally funded by Eli Broad, paid Sanzi $121,000 in 2016 and $131,000 in 2017. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute.

QAnon-linked celebrity and former General Michael Flynn was one of the most vocal proponents of taking the fight to school board meetings, speaking at dozens of events across the country after January 6. At a ‘Reopen/Reawaken America’ tour event, Flynn gave a speech alongside MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. “We cannot allow school boards to dictate what is happening in our schools,” Flynn told the crowd. “We dictate that.

Flynn called for his followers to get involved in local politics repeatedly, railing against the evils of critical race theory and vaccine mandates. Flynn also has ties to the Council for National Policy, where he appeared on a 2016 panel called ‘Terrorism and the Condition of the Military’. More evidence of Flynn’s ties to the CNP came to light in The Washington Spectator:

“​​Academic researcher Allpress found Flynn listed in a Zoominfo database of ‘email addresses and direct dials for the Council for National Policy employees’ with a CNP phone number (first listed on November 26 and still active as of February 11—throughout the period when he was appearing at the Stop the Steal protests, including in the January 6, 2021 rally).

Enforcers and Activists

Another important part of the full-court press against public education is the grassroots efforts on the ground, in which conservative community members turn out in droves to school board meetings to voice their displeasure with proposed mask mandates.

One side effect of this groundswell has been a series of viral internet videos, chronicling right-wing parents exploding at school board members for allegedly trying to indoctrinate their children into a leftist agenda. This has proven an effective means of spreading awareness of their cause, with videos racking up hundreds of thousands of views. This is the level where organizing is most organic in terms of funding, driven by merchandise sales and donations from independent followers. This often contributes to the escalation, as influencers feel the need to do more to garner more attention and more donations from followers. 

This dynamic has the potential to create dangerous conditions. In one incident in Vancouver, Washington, an anti-mask protest led by Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer members forced three schools in the area to close. Proud Boys also appeared in force at a school board meeting in Florida, where they assaulted a journalist and intimidated others.

These vanguards of the paramilitary right are often prepared to act as enforcers of their agenda on unsuspecting school board members. In Pennsylvania’s Northampton County, candidate for county executive Steve Lynch ignited a firestorm when he appeared at a Northampton school board meeting and threatened to “take twenty strong men and go in there and remove them”.

Proud Boys have been inserting themselves into anti-mask and anti-vaccine efforts around the country.

As schools reopen, protests have only increased in fervor. Surrounded by propaganda designed to convince them that COVID measures are an assault on their freedom, many truly believe that they are exhausting the last legal remedies for their perceived oppressions. Influencers are eager to capitalize on the fear, and top-level funders provide the infrastructure for conservative groups to concentrate forces on the ground.

These tactics have had widespread success in the past, and the heated discussion around mask mandates has provided a spark for more controversy. With a concrete plan to remake the face of public education, a small number of influential Americans have mobilized the conservative base to put pressure on local democratic institutions. These conflicts attract more violent elements of the far-right, which often put students, teachers, and school board members at risk. 

A DeVos-Prince funded takeover of America’s public schools presents a bleak future of ever-increasing corporate control into the education of future generations of Americans. With a great amount of energy and resources being poured into the campaign to remake America’s public schools at the local level, the movement is stronger and more organized than ever before.

Title composition by Dan Feidt.