Dark money's influence on public education is not new. For decades, groups funded by billionaires have worked to push policies and proposals that pull teachers, funding, and other resources from public schools, including efforts to promote school privatization, charter schools, vouchers, and other so-called “education reform” schemes intended to defund and dismantle public education. In 2022, dark money groups are continuing these efforts to undermine and defund public education. Their impacts to public education are far-ranging and damaging, including:
Shaping the pandemic response
School board recalls
Chaotic school board meetings
Curriculum challenges and restrictions
State-wide efforts to attack public schools
The global COVID pandemic offered a unique opportunity to implement multi-pronged efforts by the political operatives that were hidden by the pandemic chaos. In fact, a network of dark money groups shaped the education pandemic response narrative to in-person schooling and no mask mandates, since March 2020. Additionally, it is clear that since mid-2020, experienced dark money operatives used new and established school privatization groups to take “advantage of parents’ genuine concerns about their children’s well-being in a global pandemic to further attack public education.”
The number of recalls of school board members have skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. Per Ballotpedia, 47% of school board recalls in the last ten years were conducted in less than three years. Many of these were fueled by pandemic-related outrage over reopening schedules or masking mandates and others related to the teaching of alleged divisive topics such as Critical Race Theory (CRT). How many of these recalls were run by astroturfed groups supported by dark money? It is unknown; however, in Fairfax County, VA, the openFCPS school board recall effort received 73% of its funds from N2 America, a right-wing dark money organization. The recall effort in Loudoun county was run by Fight For Schools, another well-known astroturfed dark money organization. Seemingly, there may be a similar trend across the country: San Francisco saw recall efforts with significant funding from PACs and super PACs funded by billionaires. Recall efforts distract school boards from doing their best for students.
School board meetings have become intense and confrontational and sometimes dangerous due to these attacks. Rallies organized by dark money groups sometimes bring people who are from out of district and/or may not have children in the school district; therefore, they are not limited by civil discourse, much less the truth. Parents, teachers, and elected officials have been targeted for harassment, which has created fear in the public school community and has silenced many leaders and parents. Obviously, these distractions would and do negatively impact the ability of school boards and public schools to support and educate students. How can one do their best job for students if their job or very life is threatened?
Across the United States, laws are being passed to affect what and how students learn. Such bills are rooted in culture wars and manufactured panics; however, 25 states have passed 64 laws that limit student access to books, education on gender and sexuality, education on racism and civil rights. This doesn’t even include all 42 states that have introduced anti-CRT bills that would result in restricting the ability of teachers to teach about civil rights, social justice, and American history.
Teacher resignations remain high after two years of pandemic teaching, harassment by parents and right-wing groups, and a lack of support by school administrations who are struggling under the same attacks. The National Education Association identified dark money networks that have used social media networks to radicalize adults over COVID protocols, curriculum, culture war issues, and book bans. The resulting teacher shortage is affecting schools across the nation, which means some classrooms may not have certified or experienced teachers.
For years, Virginia public school students have typically outperformed the national average in most, if not all subjects and grade levels. Virginia is ranked in the top 5-10 school systems across the United States; however, this academic excellence in Virginia has been under attack since the Youngkin Administration is aggressively working undermine public education in Virginia by:
Interfering in the authority of the school boards to supervise their school district, as granted by the Virginia Constitution, which states “The supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.”
Pushing a myriad of efforts via Executive Orders, curriculum challenges, and new policies to reduce support and protection for vulnerable students, including disabled, LGBTQIA, immigrant, African American, non-native english speaking, and other students.
School boards were elected and administrators were hired to run our public schools; however, sometimes it seems that politically-motivated groups, funded by dark money from unknown donors outside the school district, are driving the public education conversation. This results in reduced money and resources for public education, which directly affects each child’s constitutional right to free and appropriate public education and interferes with school districts’ ability to educate children, much less train and support teachers.
4PublicEducation.org champions public schools as the cornerstone of a healthy democracy and the right for every child to an exceptional education. We reject the interference by dark money to undermine and defund our public schools.