How You can Help Defeat the Right-Wing Agenda To Destroy Public Education
By the FCDC National Affairs Committee
You’ve probably heard of Moms for Liberty and other such groups. What you may not have heard is that these groups are just fronts bankrolled by right-wing dark money. Who funds them and why was the focus of the FCDC National Affairs Committee’s summer forum, “Dark Money Is Coming For Our Children: Exposing the Right-Wing Agenda To Destroy Public Education.
With school board and other state and local elections imminent, the forum’s lessons couldn’t be more timely. Democrats can use the critical information presented by the speakers to educate friends and neighbors and to help elect Democratic candidates who will fight this right-wing attack on public schools. (Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOQs-TEaGMc.)
National Affairs Committee Chair Sandra J. Klassen kicked off the forum by noting that our nation’s public schools are besieged by coordinated attacks from a host of affiliated right-wing groups created and sustained by wealthy individuals with hidden agendas. “Their current tactics are to concoct social-issue and culture-war traps” that foment hostility toward public schools, Klassen explained. They want to gain control of school funding and management as a gateway to creating a privatized education system that they can use “to censor, control, and limit exposure to evidence-based curricula,” to create paths to religious indoctrination and to create a compliant workforce rather than a well-informed citizenry.
“Ultimately, it’s an attack on democracy, not just public education,” said the first panelist, Professor Maurice T. Cunningham, author of Dark Money and the Politics of School privatization. Professor Cunningham became interested in the issue in 2016 when a charter school question appeared on the ballot. There was a lot of money behind the push for it. He and others researching these issues found labyrinthine layers of foundations intended to obscure the true source of the money. For example, the National Parents Union’s biggest donor was the Vela Education Fund, which was a joint venture of Charles Koch and the Waltons, both right-wing billionaires. Funding for Parents Defending Education was traced back to Leonard Leo, the right-wing billionaire behind the effort to stack the Supreme Court with Christian conservatives.
“Moms for Liberty, and others—they all have the same creation story,” noted Cunningham. It’s the fictional creation story of moms sitting around the kitchen table. “Then boom, before you know it, they’re sitting on several million dollars…. What luck! It’s not luck. It’s all pre-arranged.”
Next, Dr. Jennifer C. Berkshire, co-author of A Wolf at the School House Door, discussed why these wealthy individuals and right-wing groups are willing to spend so much to push vouchers and charter schools. Their motivations are ideological, religious, and financial, she said.
The first push for privatization came in response to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down separate but equal schools. “Conservative elites recognized that the days of being able to keep their schools segregated were numbered, so instead, they pushed for a publicly funded, private education,” she explained.
In the present day, noted Berkshire, a Republican primary candidate in Shenandoah County advocated removing a Virginia constitution provision that requires a public education. “Fortunately, he only received 2.5% of the vote,” she said, but “we are hearing language like this all across the Republican party.” Their vision “is one of radical individualism in which only your child matters.”
Once you begin to think about education as an individual, you lose all sight of what’s good for the community, “and you are no longer thinking as a citizen,” agreed the third panelist, Professor Diane Ravitch, an education historian, policy analyst, and author of more than a dozen books, including Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools.
Ravitch originally supported testing, vouchers, and charter schools, but changed her view when data from The Network for Public Education, an organization Ravitch helped create, proved charter schools were no better than public schools. Many were even worse. “They used to talk about saving poor kids from failing public schools,” she said, but studies show “that kids from public schools who take vouchers do less well than their peers in public schools.”
It’s really an entitlement program for the rich, because most kids who get vouchers are already in private religious schools that their parents pay for, explained Ravitch. Those parents just “don’t want to be taxed to pay for poor kids to go to school.”
But it’s about much more than taxes, she said. “It’s billionaires that you never hear of, like Wilkes and Dunn in Texas, who want every child to attend an evangelical church school.” It’s about attacking unions because they secure worker rights and are a key part of the Democratic base.
This regressive agenda is not new, said the last speaker, Lisa Graves, executive director of True North Research and president of the Board for the Center for Media and Democracy. (She explained that she was speaking in her personal capacity, not for her organization, which is nonpartisan.) These very right-wing forces “are trying to roll back a century of progressive laws,” said Graves. She noted that about 18 years ago when she attended Grover Norquist’s Wednesday group as part of a right-left coalition, he spoke openly about killing public schools over the next 20 years.
Graves emphasized the challenge of uncovering the dark money connections. It was her organization which found that most of the $3 million raised by Parents Defending Education had come from the billionaire networks devoted to privatization rather than from moms or local fundraising. Nonetheless, she said, members get air time as if they were ordinary parents.
These organizations don’t just want to privatize public schools, she added. They want “their hands in the till” of a public school market estimated to range from $500 billion to $750 billion. And once they get control, there’s little regulation or disclosure of how money is spent, which has resulted in “bankrupt schools, closed schools, fraud, and the like.”
Graves concluded by noting that her organization has partnered with Heal Together to offer parents tools to use at the local level when they encounter groups attacking their schools.
In the roundtable and Q&A, the panel gave talking points and suggestions for future action. “We are going to have to relearn that rhetoric of the public good,” and the importance of public education, said Berkshire. As for whether choice will improve outcomes for your children, said Ravitch, that’s a hoax. Funds for public schools get siphoned into private groups. Instead of one strong system, you get multiple weak ones unaccountable to anyone.
With regard to the charge that outcomes don’t improve when public schools get more money, Berkshire countered that those increasing investments in public schools primarily reflect the higher cost of incorporating children with special needs, which charter schools generally don’t do.
Not every argument is easy to counter, however. Berkshire noted that most people think Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin won because of a backlash to CRT (critical race theory). She disagreed, explaining that “he spoke relentlessly to parents who were concerned about the war on merit—the idea that if you changed the admission policy for the elite magnet school, that their kids were going to pay a price for that.” That has been an emotional issue at schools like Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. The issue works for Republicans, Berkshire explained, and Democrats haven’t found a good strategy for responding to that.
Power to the People
It’s important to note that despite the best efforts of these groups and all their dark money, when parents organize and demand a referendum on vouchers, they win, Ravitch said. But that has to be a concerted and consistent effort. “It’s not a November 2023 thing. It’s a year-round thing,” Graves said. And the stakes couldn’t be higher, because, it will determine whether our tax dollars fund fact-based education for all or just the ideology of the right wing.
Panelists added that the Democratic Party also needs to step up its defense of public schools. Klassen noted that at least in Virginia, the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA) recently ratified a resolution condemning the right-wing efforts to dismantle and privatize public education. Klassen closed by encouraging everyone to join the fight.
Follow this link to watch the full forum on YouTube and to get links to additional resources: