Thousands of events take place across the U.S. annually in the last week of January for “School Choice Week,” organized by a self-described “nonpartisan, nonpolitical public awareness effort” group. In truth, National School Choice Week — which has been taking place every year since 2011 — has been bankrolled by right-wing special interests, and its local events are mostly organized by schools and organizations that support diverting public education dollars to private alternatives.
Among those most vocal in celebrating this School Choice Week — for which 26,000 events are slated to take place across 45 states — are a new wave of “parent” groups, deployed to make it appear there is wide opposition to public school policies while advancing the agenda of their (largely undisclosed) funders.
Staffers from such organizations as “Moms for Liberty,” “Parents Defending Education” and the “Independent Women’s Forum” have been featured in right-wing media as “concerned parents” attacking public schools without disclosing their positions in dark money-funded organizations.
These “parent” groups appear to have joined the decades-long coordinated dark money effort to dismantle public education. Rather than focusing explicitly on promoting privatization, they have attacked public schools — going after masking policies, remote learning and evidence-based curricula they dislike.
A Reenergized Effort to Privatize Education in the Wake of the COVID-19 “Shock”
“School choice” advocates often claim to promote “freedom” for parents to choose the form of education they see best for their children.
But the strategy of “school choice” is to move public funding away from public schools into private hands. Joanne Barkan, an author who writes about education reform, has argued that four words sum up education privatizers’ objective: public funding, private management.
This helps explain the recent right-wing reframing of the attacks on public schools as “parental rights”: If these dark money actors can successfully argue that private citizens should outrank publicly elected officials in school leadership, they will have won private management over a publicly funded good.
“School choice” is rooted in efforts to keep schools racially segregated, and still today these programs in effect maintain segregation by race, class and disability. While disavowing that history, donors — like Charles Koch, Betsy and Dick DeVos and the Walton family (Walmart heirs) — have continued to push school privatization.
Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein predicted in March 2020 that COVID-19 presented an ideal opportunity for “disaster capitalism,” a tactic pushed by school privatizers in the wake of the last financial crisis. She identified the global pandemic as a “shock,” or disruptive event that global elites often use to introduce free-market “solutions” that redistribute wealth upwards.
Klein’s prediction has been largely vindicated, with governmental efforts like Trump’s Paycheck Protection Program going mostly to huge businesses, several with ties to Trump and his family. A report this month found that the wealth of the world’s 10 richest men doubled during the pandemic as incomes dropped for the 99.99999 percent.
School privatizers, including some of these new “parent” groups, have keyed in on this opportunity in education. In the wake of the pandemic, the Koch-funded group “Yes. Every Kid.” released its “Opportunity in Crisis” report proposing a variety of privatization schemes, according to an investigation by UnKoch My Campus and Save Our Schools Arizona.
“Capitalizing on the Education Moment,” a podcast episode produced by DonorsTrust — a group designed to cloak the true source of funds to right-wing causes — featured Nikki Neily of the new group “Parents Defending Education,” who claimed that introducing competition to public education could be an exploitable “pressure point.”
Tiffany Justice, leader of “Moms for Liberty,” similarly argued that introducing private alternatives to public education would “solve” public school issues by “putting pressure on schools to reform … and to open up to parents.”
“Parent” Groups Attack Public Schools
School privatizers seem to know that sowing enough distrust in public education — and capitalizing on the genuine frustration of parents struggling to cope with pandemic-related work, schooling and child care issues — could fulfill their “great disenrollment” prophecy. One strategy of these “parent” groups seems to be using easily replicable resources to attack public schools, deploying them in school districts nationwide and attracting right-wing media coverage.
Independent Women’s Forum has rebranded itself as an “independent” pro-parent group even as it attacked pro-parent policies, including federal child care and paid leave legislation. Instead, The Washington Post uncovered that the group was circulating anti-masking template letters to embolden parents to challenge school policies recommended by public health experts.
Parents Defending Education has also generated a litany of resources to attack school curricula. This includes guidance for filing Freedom of Information Act requests, which can then be used as evidence of schools’ supposed political indoctrination of students. A ready-made school board resolution prohibiting the teaching of “critical race theory,” which the right disingenuously weaponizes as catch-all term for teaching the history of racism in the U.S, is available too.
After drumming up attacks on public schools and teachers, these groups have shifted to calling for a “mass exodus” from the public system. Some have provided resources that direct people to pro-privatization organizations like “Public School Exit.”
New “Parent” Groups Have Ties to Groups Pushing School Privatization
The funding sources of many dark money “parent” groups that cropped up along with the manufactured outrage against “critical race theory” in 2020 and 2021 are largely unknown due to weak public disclosure regulations.
However, we know more about funding to Independent Women’s Forum, a longstanding pay-to-play group with a history of pushing school privatization and other right-wing agenda items. This includes deep ties to known school privatizers such as the Koch brothers and the Walton Family Foundation, and funding from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, a common funder of groups pushing opposition to “critical race theory.”
Independent Women’s Forum has also received over $1 million from the Bradley Foundation, which has a long history of promoting school privatization and recently sponsored a forum at a 2021 meeting of the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) where three “model” bills attacking school curricula were pushed. ALEC was a sponsor of Independent Women’s Forum’s 2018 annual gala.
Independent Women’s Forum also has ties to former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a billionaire who, as one of the foremost partisans pushing public school privatization, cut funding for public schools while creating the first federal private school voucher program. Dick DeVos and Amway were listed sponsors of Independent Women’s Forum’s 2019 gala, where Betsy DeVos received an annual award.
“Parent” groups also have employment ties to school privatization, including Independent Women’s Forum Senior Fellow Ginny Gentles (who runs her own privatization LLC and is senior adviser for the pro-privatization American Federation for Children) and Senior Policy Analyst Inez Feltscher Stepman (who previously worked for ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Taskforce and for National School Choice Week). Two Parents Defending Education staffers — Kim Richey and Aimee Viana — worked for DeVos in the Department of Education. Viana also runs her own school privatization consulting firm. And Parents Defending Education’s director of outreach, Erika Sanzi, is currently a fellow at the right-wing Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which sponsors charter schools.
Dark money “parent” groups would have us believe that their talking points represent a consensus view and that the best remedy to public schools’ shortcomings is to funnel tax dollars to privately run alternatives.
But many parents, students and teachers do not agree with the squeaky-wheel campaign being waged or buttressed by a small number of right-wing groups. A poll conducted in December found that 78 percent of the public school parents surveyed were pleased with how their schools were handling the pandemic. This month, students in some districts pushed back by staging walkouts for what they see as inadequate COVID precautions, and a strike by the Chicago teachers’ union won city schools increased safety measures.
Public hearings across the country have revealed numerous parents themselves speaking out in support of public schools and the honest teaching of history, including in the Moms for Liberty hotspot of Williamson County, Tennessee, where some parents have formed groups to oppose Moms for Liberty’s attempts to ban books and rewrite entire curricula. In Virginia, too, where Independent Women’s Forum centered its attention leading up to the 2021 gubernatorial elections, many parents are standing up to efforts by right-wing groups to ban books, lessons about the U.S’s promises and history, and more.
In 1964, James Baldwin predicted in “A Talk to Teachers” that teaching about race would be met with “the most determined resistance.” Over half a century later, the Trump period has fueled a resurgence in white supremacist and anti-equality forces. Though the national groups appear to be well-funded to target both truth and public education in one fell swoop, most Americans do not share their views and many are standing up for schools that protect kids’ health, teach the truth and promote equality for all.