Tea party 2.0? Conservatives organize themselves in school battles

MEQUON, Wisconsin. – A loose network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks is quietly lending firepower to local activists engaged in cultural warfare fights in schools across the country.

While they are drawn to the anger of parents opposed to school policies on racial history or COVID-19 protocols like mask warrants, groups are often led by political agents and lawyers willing to amplify local conflicts. .

In an affluent suburb of Milwaukee, a law firm heavily funded by a conservative foundation that has fought against climate change mitigation and has ties to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election has helped parents seeking to remove members of the Mequon-Thiensville school board, primarily through the board’s hiring of a diversity consultant. A new national advocacy group, Parents Defending Education, has promoted Wisconsin parenting tactics as a model.

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In Loudoun County, Va., A spokesperson for the Trump administration’s Justice Department rallied parents in a recall effort sparked by opposition to a district racial equity program. In Brownsburg, Indiana, a leader of a national network of parents opposed to anti-racist school programs helped a mother obtain a lawyer when the district superintendent prevented her from following her Twitter account.

This growing network of support highlights the energy and resources invested in the cauldron of political debate in schools across the country. Republicans hope these efforts lay the groundwork for a return to congressional elections next year. Some see the break-up of local organization on the right as a reminiscence of a movement that contributed to the GOP takeover of the House 10 years ago.

“Sounds like a very tea party to me,” said Dan Lennington, an attorney with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, who has offered free legal advice to several parent groups suing or assessing school board recalls, including Mequon’s. . . “These are ingredients to have an impact on future elections. “

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Lennington’s group is funded in part by the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that supports conservative causes. Foundation secretary, GOP lawyer Cleta Mitchell, advised Trump as he sought to overturn the 2020 election results and has since worked to push for stricter voting laws in states .

Like the Tea Party movement, the groups have been called “astroturf” by some opponents – activism fabricated by powerful interests to resemble a grassroots organization.

“Outsiders exploit genuine concerns, but the framing of the issues is largely regulated by national groups,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, who has written on the nationalization of education.

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But advocates and their outside support argue they are exploiting genuine outrage and working to counter the disproportionate influence of liberal groups in schools.

“There’s a misconception out there that it’s part of a national right-wing agenda,” said Amber Schroeder, a 39-year-old mother of four who helps lead the Mequon recall. “We are the ones who are pushing our own here against an extremely liberal teachers’ union agenda.”

The Ballotpedia policy tracker website has approximately 30 active school board recall efforts nationwide. Some focus primarily on disputes over anti-racist training and education in schools, often referred to as critical race theory. Others have been sparked by debates over school policies regarding transgender students and public health measures in the event of a pandemic.

Local parent activists quickly claim credit for this work, and outside groups offering legal aid, research, organizational tools and media training are often reluctant to discuss their role.

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Among these is Parents Defending Education, an Arlington, Va.-Based group formed in January and dedicated to “combating indoctrination in the classroom.” It provides templates for requesting public documents, a guide to parenting rights, organizing strategies and talking points.

“We created Parents Defending Education because we believe our children deserve to learn to think in school – not what to think,” wrote its president, Nicole Neily, in an email to The Associated Press.

Neily said the group “is not involved in any recall effort, in Mequon or elsewhere.” But the group’s website promotes the Mequon activists’ campaign. As part of its national database of parent “incident reports”, the group highlights Mequon’s case by publishing, as a guide for others, the Freedom of Information Act request that the parents have filed. .

Neily declined to name Parents Defending Education’s funding sources. As a tax-exempt organization, the group is not required to make its donors public. Neily has held leadership positions for conservative groups including the Independent Women’s Forum and the Cato Institute, according to the group’s website.

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Another newly influential group is No Left Turn in Education, an organization that has swelled to 78 chapters in more than 25 states since its inception last year by Elana Fishbein.

Since December, Fishbein has secured free legal representation for parents fighting school programs with school districts. Most of these lawyers are affiliated with firms similar to Lennington, including the Liberty Justice Center and the Pacific Legal Foundation, which also receive funding from the Bradley Foundation, as well as prominent GOP donor Dick Uihlein, a billionaire from the supply of maritime transport.

A spokesperson for Uihlein declined to comment. Messages left at the Bradley Foundation were not returned.

Fishbein says the journey from local mom to nationally recognized conservative activist has been swift.

“A year ago, I had a handful of moms in my suburban Philadelphia living room,” Fishbein said. “Three weeks later I was on Tucker Carlson, and within a week I had over a million visitors to my Facebook page.”

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Fishbein and leaders of similar groups say they believe conservative activism in schools has exploded as parents have taken a closer look at their children’s schoolwork during distance learning.

“Now this whole drastic indoctrination problem is added to their agenda,” Fishbein said. “It’s a really big fight.”

It’s a fight likely to help Republicans in next year’s congressional election, said Ian Prior, a former Justice Department official who is now the executive director of a conservative organization called Fight for Schools, which is working to recall Loudoun County Board members.

“You’re going to need a team. You’re going to need a staff. You’re going to need what I call the Moms Army, ”he told a conservative conference in Texas in July.

This could include Schroeder, who describes his previous political activity beyond voting as “zero.”

Mainly frustrated by the district’s $ 42,000 contract last year with Milwaukee diversity consultant Blaquesmith, Schroeder reached out to Scarlett Johnson, another 46-year-old Mequon mother who had researched strategies to challenge school boards on the No Left Turn website.

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“All the critical racial theory buzzwords were present,” Johnson noted, referring to Blaquesmith’s webinars she watched. “I think it would be wrong to fall back into a more race-conscious and race-oriented society.”

When Mequon Police asked parents to collect signatures in the city park to remove their sign, Schroeder contacted Lennington, who wrote a letter to the city pleading for the group’s right to reunite.

The letter, offered free of charge, was a small service but allowed parents to return to the park.

It also allowed Lennington, who is lobbying the State Capitol, to invite Johnson and Schroeder to testify at a legislative hearing in Madison for legislation to require school districts to make all programs public.

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Groves reported in Sioux Falls, SD

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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