The right-wing operatives orchestrating the attack on America's school boards

Rochelle Basirico speaks against the state masking mandate for schools during the Redlands Unified School District board of trustees meeting (Photo by Terry Pierson/MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

The nation's school boards are under attack. Frequently things are getting out of hand:

In Illinois, a "man was arrested...for aggravated battery and disorderly conduct following a disruption at a Mendon Board of Education."

In Virginia, "[o]ne man was arrested, another man was ticketed for trespassing and a third person was hurt at a chaotic" Loudoun County School Board meeting. Prior to the meeting, several "board members received death threats." When the public comments portion of the meeting ended early to ensure the safety of the attendees, protesters "chanted '[s]hame on you' and raised their middle fingers."

In Washington State, a meeting of the Marysville School Board was forced to recess after protesters wouldn't stop banging on the windows. Following the cancelation of the meeting, the protesters began yelling obscenities. One man grabbed a flag pole and confronted two of the board members. An object was thrown at them as they fled the scene. One school district official was blocked from leaving the parking lot when protesters surrounded his car.

In California, unmasked protesters forced their way into the school board meeting room in violation of COVID protocols. The meeting was canceled after the protesters "refused to leave the meeting room and verbally abused the staff." 

In Tennessee, a doctor who testified in favor of students wearing masks at a school board meeting was threatened as he left the premises: "[W]e will find you and we know who you are."

The people showing up at these meetings are enraged about COVID policies and Critical Race Theory. There were other incidents at school board meetings in Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and other states.

The National School Board Association (NSBA) is sounding the alarm. In a letter to President Biden on September 29, the NSBA said that "malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased" and "these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes." The organization requested federal assistance to ensure the safety of its members and larger public school community. 

Alongside the chaos and violence, there is a parallel effort to replace incumbent school board members with right-wing ideologues who oppose public safety measures and teaching students about racism. In 2021, there were at least 80 efforts to recall 207 school board members, more than double the previous record.

The sudden interest in school boards is not an organic grassroots movement of angry parents. Rather, it is an effort orchestrated by seasoned right-wing political operatives who have formed a constellation of well-funded groups dedicated to disrupting school boards. With the help of conservative media, they've already succeeded in pushing school boards into the center of political debates.

Their interest is less about changing public schools than in creating a potent cultural issue that can be exploited by Republican political candidates. 

"Grassroots" group targeting school boards run by Koch-linked operative

Since its formation earlier this year, the Virginia-based Parents Defending Education (PDE) has emerged as a leading group targeting school boards. Following the NSBA’s September 29 letter, PDE criticized the group for seeking the assistance of the Department of Justice.

“It is shameful that activists are weaponizing the U.S. Department of Justice against parents,”  PDE President Nicole Neily said. “This is a coordinated attempt to intimidate dissenting voices in the debates surrounding America’s underperforming K-12 education – and it will not succeed. We will not be silenced.” 

PDE’s activities include encouraging parents to create social media pages to “document examples of woke indoctrination” and waging lawsuits against “woke” curricula. 

PDE also maintains an “IndoctriNation Map” where it targets schools for reasons including committing to anti-racism, offering teachers support through affinity groups, and acknowledging inequity

“Through network and coalition building, investigative reporting, litigation, and engagement on local, state, and national policies, we are fighting indoctrination in the classroom — and promoting the restoration of a healthy, non-political education for our kids,” reads the organization’s website

PDE purports to be a “national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas.” 

But Neily, the group's president, has a long history in right-wing political organizations. Neily is also the founder of Speech First, a right-wing nonprofit group that advocates for “free speech” on campuses. In 2018, the Nation reported that Speech First’s board of directors included “a former head of a Koch-backed trust and two conservative attorneys from Koch-funded programs.” 

Parents Defending Education's sophisticated operations have raised eyebrows. In June, Maurice Cunningham, a recently retired professor who has been monitoring PDE, pointed out to the Daily Beast that for a group that was only incorporated in January 2021, PDE was suspiciously well-organized:

The next thing you know, this group of moms is hiring a law firm that has represented Donald Trump, has a sophisticated PR approach, has extensive...instructions on how to go about the things they’re encouraging people to do. And you have to say to yourself, okay, that takes a lot of money.”

Prior to her work with Speech First, Neily worked for other Koch-funded organizations including Franklin News Foundation and the conservative nonprofit, Independent Women’s Forum. Neily was also “a "Koch summer fellow for both the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights and the Competitive Enterprise Institute," according to the watchdog group SourceWatch.

PDE senior fellow Elizabeth Schultz is a former Trump official. She appeared on Fox News’ America’s Newsroom morning show last week criticizing the Fairfax County School Board. “They feel like they are in charge of us, and I think it is responsible for citizens to stand up and speak up about how their taxpayer dollars are spent,” Schultz said.

How Tucker Carlson turned No Left Turn into a national force

No Left Turn in Education is a prominent conservative group that, according to its website, seeks to “mobilize community participation in school board meetings.” The group, which was founded in 2020, says it is combating “radical teachings" in schools "motivated by a political agenda.” 

No Left Turn was founded by Elana Yaron Fishbein, who rose to prominence after appearing on prime-time Fox News shows. The group was relatively small until Fishbein appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight, after which the group’s Facebook page “shot up from fewer than 200 followers to over 30,000” overnight. 

No Left Turn aims to “combat racial indoctrination in our K thru 12 education system,” despite the fact that Critical Race Theory is not taught in K-12 schools in the United States. Her group says the 1619 Project, a project developed by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones examining the consequences of slavery, aims to “overturn our society by sowing divisiveness and hate.”

Fishbein and her organization, however, frequently engage in divisive rhetoric. In a social media post, Fishbein wrote, “White students who attend predominantly black inner-city high schools fear for their lives daily, but no one marches in the streets declaring ‘White Lives Matter.’” 

No Left Turn, according to Media Matters, has “compared the efforts of public school educators to that of Pol Pot, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler.” The group has also posted anti-LBGTQ rhetoric, including “telling activists to go ‘back to Trans-sylvania’” and stating that accepting LGBTQ children “represents the ‘dismantling of the family unit!’”

The group has held rallies to "[s]top Critical Race Theory and Social Justice Indoctrination” in both Georgia and Virginia.

Political consultant targets school boards

The 1776 Project was created earlier this year in an effort to “raise funds to support school board candidates who oppose public schools teaching critical race theory and the 1619 Project.” 

The group's website states that Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project tell “explicit falsehoods about history to push their political agenda” and that these programs are being “taught in classrooms in nearly every state across the country.” (It is not.)

The group was founded by Ryan Girdusky, a “political consultant and conservative writer” who supported Trump. In June, Girdusky wrote that Critical Race Theory “is an ideology that seeks to socially engineer our society based on race.” Girdusky told Axios his goal “is to help raise awareness and campaign on behalf of school board candidates nationwide who reject the divise philosophy of critical race theory and want to push it out of our public schools.” 

According to the PAC’s FEC filings, the group has already raised $437,881 in donations since April 2021.

CORRECTION: This article incorrectly reported that the 1776 Project PAC hosted a rally in Loudon County, Virginia with former Trump administration cabinet member Ben Carson. That event was hosted by 1776 Action, a separate organization with a similar mission.