Right-wing operatives are increasing their attacks on U.S. public education with an expanding number of legal complaints to censor books and target teachers on an array of issues —preventing them from teaching U.S. history accurately, treating LGBTQ+ students with the respect they deserve, and forming support groups for kids and teachers of color. These attacks will likely continue to escalate through 2024 as wedge issues intended to feed the right-wing voting base and lay the groundwork for redirecting funds from public schools to private recipients.
One of the main players in these attacks is Parents Defending Education (PDE), a dark money nonprofit group launched in 2021 in the midst of the Virginia state election cycle. Over the past two years, PDE has become a central actor in the right-wing assault on public schools across the nation. The group has trained local agitators to grab media attention, sued school districts for supposed anti-white discrimination, and railed against the teaching of social emotional learning, accurate U.S. history, and even ethnic studies in schools.
Lawyers affiliated with PDE filed at least four complaints in January with the U.S. Department of Education claiming affinity groups for kids or teachers are illegal. These are just a few of the many complaints the group has filed over the past two years.
As dark money in education expert Maurice Cunningham has written, PDE’s “real goal” in filing lawsuits and complaints appears to be to “create media attention and promote chaos and disruption.” Then groups like PDE can claim the solution to the chaos is increased right-wing “parental supervision” over school boards. That supervision appears to involve a minority of vocal, politically motivated parents dictating what other people’s kids are taught or what they can read, based on whether such lessons or books are consistent with their right-wing religious beliefs and political opinions.
PDE’s speakers are often portrayed in the media as simply “concerned parents,” despite the group’s ties to the network of oil billionaire Charles Koch, far right politicians and school privatization efforts. Due to the timetables for the filing of nonprofit IRS forms, the amount PDE had raised to mount these attacks was unknown — until now.
PDE’s 2021 990 nonprofit IRS form shows that the group raised more than $3.1 million in its first year, even though many genuinely local grassroots efforts take years to raise that much money. That form does not reveal how much money PDE raised in 2022, during the congressional midterm elections; the amount it received to fuel its operations last year is likely even higher than 2021. The $3.1 million disclosed for 2021 also does not include any money raised that year by PDE Action, its (c)(4) advocacy arm.
What does the new filing show? First, it reveals that although PDE describes itself as a group of concerned parents, almost all of its funding came from major donors rather than dues from parents. Specifically, PDE raised only $77,272 from membership dues out of the $3,178,345 it was given that year by funders who were not members.
That is, only 2 percent of the group’s funding came from local parents who paid a $10 fee for membership. The vast majority of PDE’s funding comes from big secret sources underwriting the attacks on public education, sources that paid the group a lot more than $10 in membership dues.
PDE’s figure and its disclosed fee suggest that around 7,700 people have paid dues, which would constitute .01 percent of all of the parents in the U.S. It’s a case study in the squeaky wheel getting the grease.
Notably, the dues paid by local parents barely covered the bonus Nicole Neily paid herself in 2021, as PDE’s leader and the president of its board. Neily’s base salary was $125,000, and on top of that compensation and retirement funding, she received an additional bonus of $67,500, or literally 50 percent of her base salary. It would be unusual if any of her dues-paying members ever received such a large bonus. Neily’s bonus was more than the annual real median earnings of working Americans in the U.S. With the five-figure bonus, Neily’s total compensation was $195,688 for 11 months of work in 2021. In Neily’s application for PDE’s tax exempt status, she stated that bonuses would be “no more than 10% of an employee’s annual salary” and that such compensation is approved by others on PDE’s board.
That’s not all. PDE’s second-highest paid employee, Asra Nomani, who has targeted Virginia schools while often being portrayed simply as a “Fairfax County mom,” received more than $118,000 in total compensation that first year. That left little more than $200,000 for the other 10 employees PDE reported having in 2021, meaning that Neily’s bonus alone was probably more than most of the other employees were paid that year.
Then there’s the fundraising. PDE hired a firm called Active Engagement to do that task. The firm was paid more than $371,000 in 2021, and raised a lot less, about $153,000, although its full fee could be for work in 2022 as well. That firm was created by Richard Norman, a member of the Council for National Policy, a conservative Christian/Catholic group that works with legal activist Leonard Leo and other operatives like Ginni Thomas to advance the right-wing agenda on schools and other issues nationally and at the state level.
As Cunningham noted, one of the biggest recipients of the secret money PDE raised was the law firm of Consovoy McCarthy, which received $800,000 in legal fees. That Arlington, Virginia, law firm also has attorneys in other cities, like Salt Lake City, where one of its partners is Tyler Green, one of only three trustees listed for Marble Freedom Trust. In late 2022, The New York Times and ProPublica reported that Marble is the vehicle through which secretive manufacturing mogul Barre Seid gave Leo more than $1.6 billion in 2020 to influence U.S. politics and policy for years to come. That’s the largest known donation of its kind in history.
Green, who clerked for Clarence Thomas on the U.S. Supreme Court, represented PDE in its efforts to get emails from the Salt Lake City School District. The portion of PDE’s legal fee to Consovoy related to this particular representation is unknown; Consovoy lawyers filed several legal actions across the country on behalf of PDE.
What is known is that, in creating Marble Freedom Trust, Leo chose only two other people he trusted to play a role in the mammoth fund as trustees, with Green the designated “administrative trustee” and Jonathan Bunch listed as the successor trustee, while Leo maintains sole authority to direct the funds Seid passed to him. In the short time Marble Freedom Trust has been in existence, Leo has filtered some of its funds through Donors Trust and the Schwab Charitable Fund, among others, which helps obscure the sources of funding then passed on to other Leo-endorsed groups. The use of such conduits can obscure the ultimate beneficiaries of funding from Leo or his backers.
It is unknown if PDE received any funding from Leo’s web of groups, and the law does not require that such funding be disclosed.
While the IRS does not require public disclosure of the names of a nonprofit’s major donors, it does require public disclosure of the biggest contractors hired by a nonprofit. That’s how the public knows that several of the groups that have been tied to Leo’s dark money network have paid Leo’s new for-profit arm, CRC Advisors, for advice, thus seemingly enriching Leo. That includes two of Leo’s core operations: Judicial Crisis Network (JCN)/Concord Fund and The 85 Fund/Judicial Education Project. JCN is most widely known for the key role it played in the packing of the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts.
When he launched the for-profit, Leo described one of CRC Advisors’ main activities as advising big donors on who to fund.
Not all of CRC Advisors’ known clients are also recipients of funding via Leo.
PDE’s 2021 disclosure notes that it paid CRC Advisors $106,938. Leo, as a principal in that firm, has likely benefited directly from PDE paying it a six-figure fee. That fee is presumably not for polling because PDE disclosed it spent $139,000 on polling, and it paid that same figure to Competitive Edge Research & Communications, a polling firm.
Accordingly, the services Leo’s CRC Advisors provided to PDE are not publicly known.
Leo’s ambitions are, however.
Following on his success in capturing the Supreme Court — he hand-selected Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch for Donald Trump and opposed Democratic nominees to the court — Leo announced his plans to dominate other parts of society. He told The New York Times in a 2022 interview that he sought to take the lessons learned from his decades of experience pushing the law to reflect the right-wing agenda and apply them to “other areas of American cultural, policy, and political life.”
Leo’s desire to influence public education seems clear through the efforts of the groups his network is known to be funding.
The Free to Learn Coalition was launched in July 2021 with a seven-figure ad buy campaign targeting schools in New York, Virginia, Arizona, and nationally. Free to Learn and Free to Learn Action are fictitious names registered in late June 2021 as fronts for two of Leo’s main organizations: Judicial Crisis Network/Concord Fund and The 85 Fund.
Free to Learn was active in the 2021 gubernatorial race in Virginia, where the right-wing media credited the win of Republican Glenn Youngkin to his success in leveraging attacks on the state’s public schools. In September 2021, the group dropped more than $1 million in ads targeting Loudoun County alone. PDE was launched that year and was also intensely focused on public attacks on Virginia’s public schools.
Other known CRC Advisors clients — like 1776 Unites, CatholicVote, The Story of America, Tea Party Patriots and Judicial Watch — have also sought to promote outrage over public education during the right-wing assault on schools over the past two years.
Speech First, another group previously tied to Neily, paid CRC Public Relations (another arm of CRC Advisors) more than $250,000 in 2021, according to that group’s 990 IRS form. Like PDE, Speech First also made substantial payments to the Consovoy McCarthy law firm. Speech First is part of the Leo network: it received $750,000 from The 85 Fund from 2020 to 2021.
True North has also obtained PDE’s initial filing for tax-exempt status showing attorney Jason Torchinsky — who works for the right-wing aligned law firm of Holtzman Vogel, which has registered several of Leo’s entities — as having power of attorney for the group. (Torchinsky has worked for an array of right-wing groups, including the National Republican Redistricting Trust and the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council.)
Other groups closely tied to Neily and attacks on public schooling are also part of the Leo network. The dark money duo “Independent Women’s Forum” (IWF) — where Neily was formerly executive director — and “Independent Women’s Voice” have received over $5 million from Leo’s network since 2014. PDE’s former Vice President of Strategy Asra Nomani is now an IWF fellow, in addition to having been PDE’s second-highest paid employee.
IWF actively attacked Virginia schools as “toxic” during the 2021 governor’s race and has increasingly attempted to discredit public schools by promoting anti-trans fear mongering and assailing masking and vaccine requirements designed to keep students and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. IWF has also supported an array of measures to privatize public schools or redirect public school funding.
Hostility toward public schools is a through line for groups like PDE and IWF. This through line goes back decades, before the groups even existed.
For example, in 1986, Robert Thoburn, who later joined the Council for National Policy — a secretive group of powerful Christian/Catholic nationalists where Leo has been and may still be on the board of governors — explained in his book, The Children Trap: “I imagine every Christian would agree that we need to remove the humanism from the public schools. There is only one way to accomplish this: to abolish the public schools.” He urged Christians to run for school boards with the intent “to sink the ship.”
The Christian and Catholic right-wing has had significant success since then in targeting public schools. Since 2020 in particular, right-wing political operatives have sought to take over local school boards — throwing money into flipping control of boards of education across the country — with recent wins in some districts in Texas, California and Florida — and pushing for the banning of books they disapprove of in public schools.
PDE also filed an amicus brief in a pair of cases before the Supreme Court, where the right-wing supermajority is poised to gut affirmative action at the behest of a veritable army of Leo-tied groups. These groups, which Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) has dubbed the “amicus flotilla,” provide support for the right-wing justices on the court to undercut Americans’ rights and overturn long-standing legal precedents.
Those cases were brought forward by the right-wing group Students for Fair Admissions, which itself received a quarter-million dollars from Leo’s 85 Fund in 2020. Ed Blum, who sits on PDE’s board, is a plaintiff in the joint case, despite not being a student at either of the universities being sued.
All this shows how PDE’s sudden arrival has been met with major funding from secret sources as it continues to portray itself in the media as merely “local moms.” The local activists PDE has aided are not paid the big bucks that PDE’s president pays herself, but they are benefiting from a multimillion-dollar infrastructure Neily has created to assail schools and teachers across the country, an operation that appears to be expanding as the group enters its third year of operation and eyes the 2024 elections.
Note: True North Research Senior Researcher Evan Vorpahl contributed to this report.
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