Undermining Public Education: Fake Grassroots, Real Dark Money (Part 1)


Governor Glenn Youngkin and his allies used attacks on public education to win the governorship in 2021. National and local dark money groups managed to paint a fearful, failing picture of Virginia public education. Nevertheless, overwhelming support for public schools continued among most community members.

It is now 2022, so why are Governor Youngkin’s allies and groups like Moms for Liberty (M4L), Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), and Parents Defending Education (PDE) continuing to push false narratives that Virginia public schools are failing when Virginia students typically continue to outperform the national average ?

Current misleading claims from the right-wing about “parental rights” and “compelled speech” are merely an update of the artificially amplifiedCRT” and “book banning” strategy used to influence voters during the 2021 election. It is clear that dark money groups are continuing to use fabricated moral panics, that most parents ignore, to try to foment outrage in voters.

The national groups pushing such narratives are largely fake grassroots groups, known as “astroturf,” which are part of a carefully crafted campaign by right-wing think-tanks and PACs, funded by dark money to foment chaos and discontent for the purposes of advancing political and social agendas. Their financial opacity and lack of accountability hide the sponsors of the message and/or campaign, while creating the illusion of “concerned citizens,” most of whom are part of the campaign.

Over the last two years, anti-public education and anti-CRT groups appeared across the U.S. with coordinated messaging, and loud and angry voices at school board meetings and on social media. These astroturf groups were started and operated by Republican operatives, candidates, lobbyists, and consultants backed by powerful people, institutions, and millions of dollars. They use a network of fake local news websites and social media to amplify their messaging to make it seem as if there is more support than actually exists.

Founded in January 2021, M4L and PDE are two national groups that have portrayed themselves as “grassroots” despite evidence showing how they were founded by political operatives and/or Koch network regulars. Their funding is secretive, with links tying them to billionaires like the Koch, Devos, Bradley, and Scaife families. Their sponsors and allies include a who’s who of dark money right-wing organizations (e.g., Heritage Foundation, ALEC), many of whom are members of the Council for National Policy (CNP). Maurice Cunningham, author of a book on dark money and privatization of public schools, typifies the CNP as “a secretive network of right wing billionaires and Christian fundamentalist leaders that underwrites and coordinates right wing politics.” Employees of both IWF and PDE live in the DC metropolitan area, thus a significant amount of their focus seems to be on Loudoun and Fairfax counties’ public schools.

These groups have a very narrow definition of “parental rights” to push hateful rhetoric which seems to focus entirely on: 1) teaching selective American history, and 2) preventing transgender students from using the bathroom or participating in sports according to their gender. Conveniently, they seem to ignore more traditional parental rights to ensure that accurate history is taught, students have access to diverse literature and curricula, and that students are protected and respected. Not only that, but they ignore the wide range of parental rights that already exist in school, including basic, broad, and critical parental rights like the right to:

  • Privacy.

  • Receive appropriate and needed special education support for students.

  • Provide curriculum input or other feedback by serving on citizen curriculum committees at local and state levels, speaking at school board meetings, and communicating via other methods offered.

  • Opt out of surveys, sex education, standardized testing, or public school.

  • Control of a child’s education within the bounds of Federal, State, and Local regulations and policies.

The last two rights are critical, as they clearly state that parents already have the right to remove their children from portions or all of public education, and that parental control ends where regulations and policies begin. In other words, one parent’s rights cannot abridge another parent’s defined rights enshrined in law, regulations, or policy.

Nevertheless, right-wing news outlets continue to push this narrow “parental rights” narrative by interviewing political operatives posing as concerned parents. Fox News recently interviewed a panel of parents who were later revealed to be political operatives and/or leaders of Northern Virginia anti-public education groups. Similarly, almost exactly a year ago, Fox News interviewed anti-CRT political operatives, as if they were merely “concerned parents.”

Political operatives and dark money groups are continuing their unfounded attacks on Virginia public schools in 2022, despite Virginia’s consistent ranking in the top 5-10 school systems across the United States. These attacks on Virginia’s public schools impact public education today and in the future, which will be discussed in next week’s blog.