Skip to content Skip to footer

The Far Right Is Taking Over Florida School Boards, Due in Part to Dark Money

Five Florida school boards have flipped to right-wing control.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks with attendees at a "Unite & Win Rally" at Arizona Financial Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 14, 2022.

Republicans are claiming a massive victory after a number of Florida school board candidates — who enjoyed unprecedented support from right-wing groups and politicians — won their races Tuesday. In total, five school boards in the state flipped to conservative control, including Sarasota County, which will now have a 4-1 conservative majority, and Miami-Dade, which will become the nation’s largest school district to be overseen by elected conservatives.

Many of the candidates received endorsements and campaign support from right-wing activist groups like Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project PAC — founded in 2021 explicitly to support right-wing school board candidates — as well as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made attacking public education a cornerstone of his administration, and Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican who has argued that “the battle for our country” runs through America’s schools. (Donalds’ wife, Erika Donalds, runs a consulting business dedicated to launching charter schools affiliated with Hillsdale College, the influential conservative Christian school.)

In mid-July, as Salon reported, DeSantis spoke at length at the first national summit of Moms for Liberty, highlighting some of his numerous endorsements of school board candidates in Florida. On Tuesday afternoon, he tweeted a list of 30 such candidates on the ballot that day, declaring them all “committed to the student-first principles of the DeSantis Education Agenda.” Twenty-five of those candidates ended up winning their elections, prompting Steve Bannon, CEO of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and former White House chief strategist, to crow about “the moms who are taking over the school boards.”

Other conservatives involved in the races were also quick to claim credit for the wins. On Tuesday night, 1776 Project PAC founder Ryan Girdusky tweeted that all the counties where his group had campaigned had been flipped. On Wednesday, Moms for Liberty boasted that 43 candidates it had backed had either won their races or were advancing to runoffs.

The results, Girdusky told Breitbart News, showed parents’ desires to reject “transgender ideology, critical race theory, critical gender ideology, and equity which destroys merit in education.” On Tuesday night, the PAC tweeted, “Yesterday a Texas school board that we flipped last May banned CRT and gender ideology. Today our PAC helped flip FIVE Florida school boards from majority liberal to conservative, including Miami Dade. We are removing left-wing ideologies from our schools one county at a time.”

Other conservative actors got involved as well. As writer and podcaster Hemant Mehta reported this week, the pastor of a Palm Coast church in Flagler County, Greg Peters, recently brought three conservative school board candidates on stage, citing the candidates’ endorsements by the 1776 Project PAC and urging his roughly 1,000-member congregation to vote for them “in order for the school board to be flipped from liberal to conservative.” Should they win, said Peters, the candidates “will rise up against a woke agenda and they will seek to promote truth as it is spelled out clearly in [God’s] word.”

One of those three candidates, incumbent Jill Woolbright, made news for a separate church appearance in recent weeks, where she described her time on the school board as spent battling “satanic” forces. “I have never in my life been in such a satanic warfare, spiritual warfare, that I’ve felt for the past two years on the board and especially during this election season,” Woolbright said, calling for a “breakthrough” that would institute a “conservative, God-fearing majority on our board.”

Although it bills itself as a grassroots organization, Moms for Liberty has plentiful ties to powerful conservative organizations and leaders, as well as opaque but substantial financial backing from right-wing groups. In July, Maurice Cunningham, author of the 2021 book Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, argued in the Tampa Bay Times that Moms for Liberty’s rapid nationwide expansion had occurred “at a pace that only a corporation’s monetary resources could manage.” The same month, Politico reported that Julie Jenkins Fancelli — the heir to the Publix grocery store fortune who also donated $650,000 to fund Trump’s Jan. 6 rally, plus $60,000 to cover Kimberly Guilfoyle’s speaking fee that day — has supplied nearly the entire budget of the the Moms for Liberty PAC. The PAC in turn contributed modest donations to more than 50 school board candidates, earmarking the rest for advertising campaigns to replicate its success “all over the country.”

A number of Florida’s conservative school board candidates also benefited from the in-kind support of conservative activists and media, who helped stir up controversies about their opponents or their existing local school board composition. On Tuesday, anti-CRT activist and Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo re-publicized the claims of a father in Clay County — another district that will now have a conservative majority — who charged that the school district had “secretly transitioned” his child by using the pronouns and name the student requested.

A defeated incumbent school board member in Duval County last week was the subject of another Breitbart story charging that she had used racist language against a Black conservative working with Moms for Liberty, by referring to her as a “token.” And earlier this month, conservative media and influencers, including the high-traffic right-wing Twitter account Libs of TikTok, shared a video of Sarasota School Board vice-chair Tom Edwards saying, at a community forum for educators concerned about Florida’s revisionist new civics standards, that there are Florida school board members who “are ‘woke'” and who are “working from the inside” to protect teachers.

“You need to know, we have your backs,” Edwards told a panel of educators at the forum. “And we’re working in the best strategic spot because we’re on the inside.”

That story was picked up and shared across conservative media, ranking coverage from Fox News, Breitbart and Moms for Liberty, which tweeted, “Yes, please woke school board members — be more vocal about your plans to subvert parental rights.” The video was originally posted by Christian Ziegler, vice-chair of the Florida Republican Party and husband of current Sarasota School Board member Bridget Ziegler — who herself has been a formidable right-wing activist, helping draft DeSantis’ 2021 Parents’ Bill of Rights and serving as one of the original co-founders of Moms for Liberty.

As Dan Goodwin, a reporter at Ars Technica, wrote on Twitter last week, the story led to a string of slurs against Edwards, who is gay, claiming that he was “pushing the child grooming agenda.”

The race in Sarasota also brought out a number of far-right supporters of the three conservative candidates: Ziegler, Timothy Enos and Robyn Marinelli, all of them also endorsed by the 1776 Project PAC and DeSantis. (Ziegler and Enos were additionally endorsed by Moms for Liberty.) A right-wing PAC called ABCD campaigned on behalf of the three candidates under an acronym of their last names, “ZEM,” including by driving a mobile billboard around the area that called one of the trio’s opponents a “LIAR” and “BABY KILLER” because she had once worked at Planned Parenthood. (Goodwin also noted that a campaign leaflet promoting the “ZEM” slate called their opponents “BLM/PSL/ANTIFA RIOTERS, PLANNED PARENTHOOD BABY KILLERS, [who] WANT GROOMING AND PORNOGRAPHY IN OUR SCHOOLS.”)

That mobile billboard was such a glaring violation of norms for school board races, which by law are supposed to be nonpartisan, that even DeSantis denounced the move. Yet according to local parent and public school advocate Jules Souliere, the far-right groups ended up becoming the campaigns’ most obvious street presence.

“The Republicans didn’t want the ‘ZEM’ signs, but on every street corner, Proud Boys were out there waving them,” Souliere told Salon. “The Republicans ran a normal campaign for their candidates but the ZEM promoters, made up mostly of Proud Boys, Moms for America [a distinct right-wing group from Moms for Liberty] and other extremists such as [Michael] Flynn, were the ones with boots on the ground out there doing the work for the Republican-backed candidates.”

In late 2021, Souliere co-authored an op-ed for the Herald-Tribune denouncing one Sarasota school board member and another candidate for speaking at a town hall event sponsored by a group founded by Proud Boys members. Earlier this month, the Sarasota Democratic Party decried the “ugly politicization” of the school board races, noting that one of the “ZEM” candidates, Marinelli, had been forced to withdraw from a campaign event in June “when it was learned that members of the terrorist group the Proud Boys were listed as VIP attendees.”

Yet in the end, a victory was a victory for Florida Republicans. On Twitter Tuesday night, DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw shared the Libs of TikTok post of the Edwards video, writing, “Sarasota School board had a 3-2 liberal majority. Today @RonDeSantisFL endorsed candidates won and flipped the school board so it’s now 4-1 anti wokes [sic] indoctrination and pro parental rights.”

Overall, conservatives in Florida and beyond were celebrating. The 1776 Project PAC boasted of their wins Wednesday, inviting readers on Twitter who “want us to get involved in a school board race” in their districts to apply for an endorsement. And groups and figures from the PAC’s Girdusky to Moms for Liberty to Florida first lady Casey DeSantis all sounded a common message: They were only getting started.

There were some signs of momentum in the other direction on Tuesday night, however. In Flagler County, incumbent school board member Jill Woolbright — she of the “satanic warfare” — lost her re-election bid after student activists campaigned to replace her. Woolbright had also tried to remove an LGBTQ-themed book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” from school libraries, even filing a criminal complaint with the county sheriff.

In the Alachua County school district, which became a particular target of DeSantis after bucking his 2021 ban on school mask mandates, none of the candidates backed by the governor won. Former district superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon — who was fired in March after DeSantis filled an open school board seat with a homeschooling missionary and local Republican operative — heralded the defeat of the conservative candidates there on Wednesday. “DeSantis pumped major money into our county to turn Alachua’s School Board ‘Red.’ He failed miserably!!” tweeted Simon, who has since founded a progressive PAC, Families Deserve Inclusive Schools. “Every candidate he funded/endorsed lost with huge margins. The appointee he inserted to terminate me… she’s gone too! Stop meddling @RonDeSantisFL, we don’t want you here!”

In deep-red Polk County, where DeSantis also endorsed a candidate, there was a surprising outcome, notes education writer and former school board member Billy Townsend. In races for four open seats, two liberal candidates were defeated, including the first openly LGBTQ person ever elected to a Florida school board. But a third liberal candidate won and another advanced to the general election, largely because, Townsend says, a number of Republican voters seemingly defected from the conservative slate.

“They succeeded in drawing some blood, most notably in Sarasota County,” Townsend told Salon. “But strong, fighting school board members stood their ground and won big battles in Alachua, Monroe and Seminole counties.” (Among those victories was Sue Woltanski, a board member in Monroe County who spoke to Salon this winter about Hillsdale College’s influence in Florida education.) “It’s a fight with angry cranks,” Townsend concluded. “It’s not won, but it’s not lost either.”

We have 1 day left to raise $25,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.