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Real Grassroots Parents Groups Can Fight Extremist Takeovers of Schools

Here’s how to fight back against the dark money groups attacking schools and working to influence the 2024 election.

People hold up signs in support of gay and transgender student rights during the Chino Valley Unified School District board meeting at Don Lugo High School in Chino, California, on July 20, 2023.

When I began tracking the growing attacks on public education two and a half years ago as part of my research for the watchdog group True North Research, combating the disinformation spread by dark money groups felt daunting. However, the narrative has begun shifting rapidly, as genuinely grassroots parents who value diversity, equity and fact-based education are fighting back.

In 2021, groups explicitly targeting public schools popped up from seemingly nowhere with names as misleading as their claims, such as “Parents Defending Education,” “Moms for Liberty” and “Citizens Defending Freedom.” They joined with older dark money entities, jumping at the opportunity presented by the COVID-19 pandemic — and the virtual learning and public health challenges that came with it — to demonize our schools. These groups then leapt to attacking the truthful telling of history in schools, banning books, and taking over state and local school boards.

Researchers and reporters have helped document the close ties these groups have to GOP politicians and operatives. It’s perhaps no surprise then, that several such groups appear set on influencing future local, state and national elections, including the 2024 presidential race.

For example, Moms for Liberty (MFL), the best known perpetrator of current right-wing attacks on schools, was recently dubbed a “GOP kingmaker” after its 2023 summit was attended by GOP presidential hopefuls Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy. MFL has been a leader in banning books that address LGBTQ+ and Black experiences, attacking policies that protect the privacy and well-being of transgender students, and promoting far right school board candidates.

MFL has already had some electoral success, most notably in Florida’s 2022 elections, where it helped install dozens of such candidates. The group credited its success there to its state-based PAC that was underwritten almost exclusively by January 6 funder and Publix heiress Julie Fancelli. Another dark money group, Moms for America (MFA), to which Fancelli gave $1.375 million in 2021, has also been active in the “Stop the Steal” protests, pushing the Big Lie, and generally assailing our elections while its action arm has endorsed far right local school board and up-ballot candidates across the country, including those who ran on book bans and opposing comprehensive sex education.

MFL has also launched three federal PACs or independent expenditure groups likely intended to put far right school board and state level candidates in office. They could also be used to support candidates and bolster right-wing turnout in the 2024 presidential election.

How Do We Fight Back?

National news media helped make MFL a household name, along with identifying some of their misdeeds, such as quoting Hitler and working with armed militias. National nonprofits have also taken notice. As part of its 2022 Year in Hate & Extremism report, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center designated MFL, MFA and “Parents Involved in Education” as anti-government extremist groups. The American Federation of Teachers has opened up a hotline for parents, educators and concerned community members to report political interference and censorship, and the National Education Association organized a “Freedom to Learn & Teach Truth” week of action in June.

Local and national groups — including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Run for Something, the Florida-based Freedom to Read Project and Red, Wine & Blue, have created resources for progressives who want to run for school board.

Other national groups have also popped up with important resources: H.E.A.L. Together, Moms Rising, Defense of Democracy and STOP Moms for Liberty.

The work to counter the narrative of dark money groups attacking our schools is doubtlessly more organized and energized today than ever before, thanks especially to tenacious parents on the ground. But there is much more to be done at the local level.

For those not yet involved in countering these attacks on our schools, here are some ideas to get you started.

Attend Local School Board Meetings: School board meetings have been a hotbed of aggression by far right agitators who have sought to impose their personal beliefs and opinions as binding on all students. Providing a strong counter voice means targeted school boards and administrators cannot simply grease the squeaky wheel in disregard of the majority of parents who are less aggressive, though no less passionate, in their support for equitable education. Asking that speakers address who is funding them and creating their talking points, as well as if they have children attending public schools in the districts in which they are appearing, can help. However, attendees should be aware that members of these groups have a history of harassment and intimidation.

Counter Their Narrative: Those seeking to change the narrative around schools should avoid repeating and thus reinforcing dark money rhetoric. For example, instead of accepting their effort to frame this as “parents’ rights” or “critical race theory,” call out what they are doing, such as opposing the truthful telling of history. H.E.A.L. Together offers resources on how to construct a powerful counter narrative.

Build a Movement for Equitable Education: H.E.A.L. Together’s toolkit also offers guidance on how to build a campaign in defense of equitable education, including how to run for school board, as does Red, Wine & Blue’s Parent Playbook. Simply joining a local Facebook group, like those run by STOP Moms for Liberty and Defense of Democracy, also helps keep you informed about local issues and upcoming actions.

Dig Into Dark Money and Extremist Ties: Looking at the money spent backing extremist candidates can also expose their agendas. Each county and state has different campaign finance reporting requirements, but local candidate, political party and political action committee reports can generally be found on your county campaign finance webpage or by contacting your local elections board.

H.E.A.L. Together and NYU Metro Center, together with True North Research, recently released an infographic to help familiarize parents and community activists with some of the national groups and their ultrawealthy funders working to attack local schools. Looking into national groups’ connections with local reactionary groups on the ground — and then sharing that information locally — can help grow community antipathy against the outside influences at play locally.