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The Right Has Expanded Its Dark Money Strategy for Dominating School Boards

The far right built an elaborate new infrastructure for attacking public education in the run-up to the midterms.

Members of Moms For Liberty and other supporters attend a campaign event for Jacqueline Rosario in Vero Beach, Florida, on October 16, 2022.

Part of the Series

Following the November elections, staffers from several dark money anti-public school groups — Moms for Liberty (M4L), Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) and Parents Defending Education (PDE) — took to the media to tout the supposed success of far right school board candidates.

One IWF staffer described the results of local and state public education races as a bright spot for Republicans in an overall disappointing midterm, representing a “red undercurrent” where a “red wave” failed to appear.

In reality, right-wing school board candidates backed by such groups did not sweep their races, far from it. In particular, M4L, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that keeps its funders secret from the public, and its state PACs, which endorsed more than 500 school board candidates this year, lost the majority of the races the group endorsed in.

But the infrastructure that M4L and other dark money anti-public education groups have built up will likely only continue to grow in sophistication and resources, trying new and better-funded avenues, like using federal super PACs, to dominate school boards in future elections and wield control over the public schools they seemingly seek to destroy through privatization.

Attempted School Board Takeover Part of Longstanding School Privatization Scheme

The targeting of local school boards is part of a broader decades-long effort by right-wing elites — including right-wing oil heir Charles Koch, former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her husband and Amway heir Dick DeVos, the Walton family (heirs to the Walmart fortune) and Trump insurrectionist candidate devotees Liz and Richard Uihlein — to privatize our educational system. These ultra-wealthy enemies of public education have directed parts of their vast fortunes to advancing right-wing political candidates who will enact radically reactionary policies that suit their world view.

Starting in 2020, existing dark money groups such as the Independent Women’s Forum, which has received funding from the Koch network and the DeVoses along with secret donors, took advantage of parents’ genuine concern over their children’s educational challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. They used the pandemic to attack public schools for their safety regulations (like masking and temporary virtual learning measures), to scapegoat teachers’ unions, and to peddle the diversion of public tax dollars to privately managed alternatives.

New groups, such as M4L and Parents Defending Education (PDE), popped up in 2021 to join IWF and others on the anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) bandwagon. This line of attack, popularized by Christopher Rufo at the Koch-funded Manhattan Institute, has egregiously misrepresented the academic theory taught in university settings and accused K-12 schools of teaching it. Such groups, along with Fox and other GOP-aligned outlets, have distorted CRT and used it intentionally as a catch-all for right-wing grievances.

These new groups brought new resources and tactics to the dark money attack on public schools. PDE, a group registered in 2021 by long standing Koch-network operative Nicole “Nicki” Neily, has primarily focused on suing schools and school districts. Neily has touted “free speech,” but attacks by PDE and other right-wing anti-CRT groups have caused “a broad chilling effect” in schools, making it more difficult for teachers and administrators to address misinformation, teach about race and racism, and protect LGBTQ students from harassment and bullying.

M4L, meanwhile, has focused on creating chapters across the country chaired by local right-wing operatives. The far right group and its chapters, which have presented themselves as nonpartisan, have been in the news for organizing book bans targeting Black and LGBTQIA+ literature, pushing right-wing propaganda, advocating for extremist anti-LGBTQIA+ policies that would hurt some of the most vulnerable students in public schools, and threatening school board members and candidates.

In August, M4L did have success in helping far right school board candidates dominate in Florida’s primary elections. Eleven out of the thirteen candidates M4L aided won, but they also had the help of Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state GOP officials who funneled money from their PACs to campaigns of right-wing candidates, including those endorsed by M4L. M4L also aided candidates through its own state PAC, which was funded almost entirely by a $50,000 contribution from January 6 insurrection funder Julie Fancelli, a Publix heir.

The Midterm Flop

Despite the public celebration from these groups, the November election does not seem to have achieved the same level of success for right-wing dark money-backed candidates as Florida’s August elections.

The Koch-spawned FreedomWorks, which initiated a program in early 2021 called “Building Education for Students Together” that trains far right school board candidates across the country, announced that 34 of their “aligned” candidates won their school board races in November, for a total of 86 in 2022.

The group did not disclose how many of their aligned candidates lost, although in August 2021 it claimed to have already trained 250 activists on how to run for school board, along with training thousands of right-wing parents on how to “take back their school board one seat at a time.” FreedomWorks dedicated more than $430,000 to its training program in 2021 alone, according to a 2021 audit of FreedomWorks obtained by True North Research. Given that level of engagement and resources invested, 34 successful races in the November elections seems unexceptional at best.

M4L barely won more than half their races, with several races still outstanding. M4L-endorsed candidates, which numbered 270 in the November election, had only a 52 percent win rate in a supposedly red wave year.

M4L had limited success in “flipping” school boards, predominantly in Florida and South Carolina. School board races are generally not very partisan, deeply contentious or well-funded. Though there is some historical precedent for M4L-style extremist school boards that do not act in the interest of students or the community but for partisan ends, that has not been the norm in recent years.

At first glance, 1776 Project PAC (1776PP) — the right-wing political action committee that has collected more than $3 million in contributions since it was first registered in 2021, including $900,000 from the Restoration PAC whose primary funder is GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein — seems to have had slightly more success, though less than in 2021.

1776PP claims to have spent over $135,000 in 2021 “supporting [their] candidates with mailers, text messages, and digital ads to give them a competitive edge against their liberal opponents,” and achieved a 72 percent success rate in the 41 school board races it involved itself in.

In 2022, 1776PP seems to have ramped up its spending. Ryan Girdusky, the PAC’s leader, told the media it spent $400,000 supporting right-wing school board candidates in Florida’s August elections. Yet, it seemingly has had less success in 2022, announcing after the November election that the PAC’s average win rate had dropped to 60 percent overall, down from 72 percent in 2021. After the November elections, 1776PP also claimed to have “flipped” 100 school boards, out of the thousands in the U.S., since November 2021.

In the Bentonville, Arkansas school district, where 1776PP endorsed five candidates in the November elections, the PAC engaged in outside spending by sending out local mailers promising their ticket would remove racial equity training for teachers and ban books, among other “values.”

Federal super PACs, like 1776PP, are not generally considered “dark money,” because they are legally required to disclose their funders to the public. However, it is difficult for the public to ascertain how 1776PP and other similar PACs are influencing local elections with their spending, because the Federal Exchange Commission only requires PACs to disclose their outside spending in federal races. Additionally, many states only require state and local (not federal) PACs to report their spending in local elections, but such reporting is often not readily available in real time and online.

Building Fundraising Infrastructure for Future Elections

For these groups, using federal PACs to engage in local races clearly benefits their dark money allies who seek to back local right-wing candidates or initiatives, shielding the candidates from scrutiny for taking money from controversial and extremist organizations. Federal law considers such spending to be “independent expenditures” or “issue” advertising not coordinated with the candidate and the political party. (Candidates do not have to disclose any uncoordinated spending that aids them.)

1776PP’s Girdusky explained it is also easier to use targeted mailers in smaller geographic areas, like school districts, than in large congressional districts. In other words, you get more bang for your buck spending to try to dominate school board elections.

M4L made its intentions clear by emphasizing the crucial role its state PAC played in the school board race successes in Florida, where 80 percent of M4L endorsed candidates won their races. “We had ZERO funding in PAC[s] for school board candidates nationwide,” the group lamented, comparing it to their successes in Florida, emphasizing it was the “only state with funded M4L PAC.”

M4L formed three national PACs in 2021 that are prepared to accept contributions and dole out disbursements in future elections. These PACs could also potentially engage, as 1776PP has done, in outside spending on ads, mailers, text messages, and other promotion of right-wing candidates and demonization of their opponents, the sources of which would be extremely difficult and time-intensive to uncover.

M4L’s local and state leaders have begun establishing county PACs throughout the country, including in Indian River, Florida, and Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. As Paige Williams exposed in the New Yorker, the Williamson County, Tennessee, M4L chapter was an early adopter of the local PAC model, using it to back far right local and county candidates and to oppose inclusive curricula.

There is much at stake in the fight over local school board elections.

The consequences are stark and visible in some of the school districts “flipped” by M4L and 1776PP candidates. The 1776PP has bragged about the regressive policies passed by school boards where they helped elect far right members. In Texas, for instance, one such board implemented a “bathroom ban” that prevents trans students from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity and another banned the boogeyman of CRT in schools.

In Berkeley County, South Carolina, a suburb of the more progressive city of Charleston, the new M4L-dominated board wasted no time firing the district’s first Black superintendent.

Another M4L-dominated school board in Indian River, Florida — where the group’s co-creator formerly sat on the board of education — is working with the county’s far right sheriff to implement new horrific “discipline” policies. In his speech announcing the new policy, Sheriff Wayne Ivey said it would be “disruptive students’ worst nightmare” and reminisced about “the old days” where students feared having “the cheeks of their ass torn off.”

Most parents do not want their children taught under such extreme and repressive circumstances or educated in schools dominated by far right spin masquerading as education. Yet, the right-wing dark money effort to take over school boards claims it exists to back “parental rights” even though the groups support no policies that would actually make parents’ and kids’ lives better, like paid sick leave, subsidized child care, expanded Head Start or school lunch programs. In reality, this well-funded and coordinated effort by the ultrawealthy is designed not to defend parents, but to attack our public schools and undermine public education as a whole.

Still, overall, groups like M4L were far from dominant in November, despite the illusion of a red wave the right wing sought to conjure. And where they won, the public is getting its first look at how they act when they have the levers of power, an experiment that did not fare well for Koch’s Americans for Prosperity in their short-lived takeover of some school boards in Colorado a few years ago. But the battle for schools and for the next generation of voters is on, and the determination — and resources — of right-wing extremists should not be underestimated.

Note: True North Research Executive Director Lisa Graves, Senior Fellow Evan Vorpahl and Fellow Caitlin Mahoney contributed to this report.