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Major ”Grassroots” Parents’ Rights Group Rakes in Big Right-Wing Money
Parents Defending Education scored hundreds of thousands of dollars from major conservative foundations and funds.
A prominent parents' rights organization received substantial funding from billionaire-funded nonprofits and donor-advised funds in the first year of its existence, federal tax records reveal.
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Parents Defending Education (PDE) presents itself as “a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas”—namely “ideologically driven curriculum with a concerning and often divisive emphasis on students’ group identities: race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender.” But the group took hundreds of thousands of dollars from dark money groups and funds associated with influential conservatives who advocate for the privatization of public education.
The parents’ rights movement has gained momentum in recent years across the United States, with activists raging at school board meetings over a range of topics from COVID-19 mitigations to LGBTQIA+ inclusivity and the alleged teaching of “critical race theory'' in schools. Republican politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have supported these activities even as school board members, educators, and administrators have faced increasing threats of violence from radicalized individuals. DeSantis even endorsed a slate of school board candidates in the 2022 midterms that included members of Moms For Liberty (MFL), a parents’ rights group that was recently designated as an extremist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He and fellow 2024 GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump are scheduled to speak later this month at MFL’s national summit.
But the parents’ rights movement is hardly grassroots. Organizations like PDE and MFL emerged amid a larger campaign against COVID public health measures orchestrated by right-wing, billionaire-backed groups looking to return the country to a pre-pandemic normal. These organizations have amassed significant funding through large donations despite their relatively short existence. Important Context has previously reported that MFL received nearly 60 percent of its fundraising haul for that year from just five large donations.
The new revelations about PDE’s shed more light on the central role big money has played in facilitating the parents’ rights movement.
A Political Operation
PDE was established in 2021 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit by right-wing operative Nicole Neily. The group was not Neily’s first foray into education. A previous nonprofit venture she stated, Speech First, aimed at protecting “free speech,” or far right spaces, on college campuses through litigation. That group has brought a number of lawsuits over the years, taking aim at issues like policies aimed at curbing harassment and bullying.
A veteran of the political influence network of Charles Koch, Neily has worked for several right-wing advocacy organizations over the years backed by the billionaire-industrialist like the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Independent Women’s Forum. Koch is a longtime opponent of public education in America. Throughout the pandemic, dark money groups in his network used COVID mitigation measures as wedge issues to rile up parents, directing anger at teachers’ unions.
Koch-backed groups have embraced the calls for parents’ rights, which translates to giving right-wing and religious parents more say over what is taught in public schools. For example, the influential right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation, which awarded a prize to MFL last year, has promoted the idea of a “parents’ bill of rights.” House Republicans answered the calls with the Parents Bill of Rights Act in March, which was warmly welcomed by IWF and Koch’s flagship operation, Americans for Prosperity.
The work PDE does runs parallel to that of Koch groups. The organization has cultivated parental anger at public schools and teachers unions over COVID safety and school curricula. It has played a key role in efforts to ban books from schools that deal with topics like race or LGBTQIA+ issues. In May 2021, PDE sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona with other parents’ rights groups, including MFL, expressing concern over federal efforts to focus on anti-racism and the legacy of slavery.
PDE provides activists with resources they need to get involved in the movement, including a whole page on its website dedicated to attacking the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. The site also features an “IndoctriNation” map of the U.S. showing "incident reports" on individual school districts. For example, one report notes: “The West Allis-West Milwaukee School District uses guide for transgender students created by Human Rights Campaign and Gender Spectrum; guide pushes schools to keep gender identity of students secret from parents.”
Big Money Ties
Despite its self-proclaimed grassroots mantle, PDE got big cash injections from billionaire-funded foundations and funds in the first year of its existence. The contributions were first identified by the Center for Media and Democracy.
A whopping $250,000 was given to PDE by the Searle Freedom Trust, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded with wealth from G.D. Searle & Company, the pharmaceutical company that created the artificial sweetener aspartame, to promote free enterprise and conservative values. The trust is overseen by Kimberly Dennis, a co-founder and chairperson of the board of DonorsTrust, a donor-advised fund used by members of the right-wing billionaire Koch, Mercer, and DeVos families as well as Peter Thiel’s personal foundation. DonorsTrust has been identified as a major funder of groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups, like the notorious white nationalist VDARE Foundation.
Over the years, the Searle Freedom Trust has funded a number of business-aligned right-wing think tanks and nonprofits—many of which are in Koch’s network. In 2021, it gave $150,000 to DonorsTrust. It gave $500,000 each to the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Another $80,000 went to the Hoover Institution, which is housed at Stanford University. The Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation got $600,000. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which is known for providing model legislation to lawmakers, got $325,000. Meanwhile, nearly $1 million went to the State Policy Network (SPN), a nonprofit entity that funds a web of state-based libertarian think tanks.
The Trust also gave $1.2 million to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an influential right-wing think tank that also received money from the DeVos family that year, and $870,000 to the Federalist Society, a right-wing legal group dedicated to reshaping the judiciary. It gave sizable donations to right-wing media groups including $150,000 to the Prager University Foundation, $400,000 to the Real Clear Foundation, and $230,000 to the Daily Caller Foundation.
The trust has been fueling right-wing lawsuits against regulations and green energy projects as well, giving millions to various groups for “litigation.” For example, it gave $300,000 to the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA), which joined a lawsuit in 2021 challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. It gave another $200,000 to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which launched a lawsuit in 2021 challenging the Biden administration’s approval of the Vineyard Wind Project.
Another $200,000 to PDE came from the Edelman Family Foundation, which was founded in 2016 by hedge fund billionaire Joseph Edelman. The foundation gave big money to other right-wing groups in 2021 as well, including $250,000 to AEI and $18,000 to another parents’ rights group, Parents Unite Inc., which publicly opposes the Biden administration’s proposed changes to Title IX, which would make broad sports bans on transgender Americans illegal.
PDE got $130,000 in 2021 from The Bader Family Foundation, a well-funded 501(c)(3) nonprofit with $77 million in net assets which is overseen by trustee Hans Bader, a former senior attorney for CEI and vocal critic of federal education policy who was tapped by Betsy DeVos to work in the Trump administration’s Department of Education. The foundation also gave $60,000 to the Heritage Foundation, and $21,000 to CEI.
Another $91,000 came to PDE through the Schwab Charitable Fund, a major donor-advised fund that serves as a funding conduit for some of the wealthiest individuals in the country. The fund has been used to make contributions to a number of right-wing groups like Heritage ($765,000), Cato ($282,000), DonorsTrust ($224,000), SPN ($73,250), NCLA ($11,500), and the right-wing Hillsdale College ($2,726,690), which also got funding from Koch that year. Schwab also routed $5,000 to VDare.
Other entities that made sizable contributions to PDE include the Bertrand Hopper Memorial Foundation($35,000) and the Achelis & Bodman Foundation ($25,000).
DonorsTrust, meanwhile, gave PDE $20,000 and donated an additional $200,000 on behalf of the group to the Project on Fair Representation, which bills itself as “a legal defense foundation that supports litigation that challenges racial and ethnic classifications and preferences.” The foundation recently submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the racial gerrymandering case, Alabama v. Milligan, which centered around a decision by the state legislature to split the Black Belt population in the southern part of the state, removing one of two African American opportunity districts from their Congressional delegation. The foundation’s brief argued on the side of the state, arguing for the court to throw out a decades-old test for determining violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The court ultimately ruled against the state.
All told, just over $750,000 of PDE’s $3.1 million fundraising haul for 2021 has been identified as originating from foundations and funds. However, much of the moeny may never be sourced as corporations and individuals do not have to publicly disclose their spending. PDE did not respond to a request for comment.
“A Thinly Veiled Threat”
Schools have long been a battleground in the U.S., but they have become particularly contentious today due to the influence of well-funded right-wing organizations like PDE.
As increasingly dire right-wing rhetoric has radicalized parents, threats of violence against teachers and school officials have grown. Last week, a school board meeting in Glendale, California, saw violent protests erupt amid public comment over a proposal to recognize June as Pride Month. Police have struggled to grapple with the problem and some school boards have reacted by tightening security.
In September 2021, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) sent a letter to the Biden administration asking it to intervene and provide extra protection for public schools and school boards over what it called “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials,” suggesting that “the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
While the Department of Justice (DOJ) responded quickly, announcing that it was opening lines of communication between the federal law enforcement and state, Tribal, territorial, and local law enforcement, the language of the NSBA letter set off a firestorm. Predictably, it enraged the parents’ rights community and the broader political right, which seized on the opportunity to shift the national conversation away from the threats of right-wing violence to free speech and alleged censorship. Neily, herself, helped organize the backlash with a public letter to the NSBA, signed by 23 groups—mostly local parent activist groups.
“Your letter to President Biden is a thinly veiled threat, intended to intimidate into silence and submission the very constituents that your members ostensibly represent,” the letter read. “Our organizations unequivocally oppose violence and find it deeply troubling that you imply otherwise about concerned citizens who care deeply about their community’s children – and who are concerned by the direction that America’s schools have taken.”
Nearly half of the state school board associations left NSBA or announced plans to do so. A number of states formed a separate school board association called the Consortium of State School Boards Association. The backlash prompted NSBA to issue a public apology for the letter in late October 2021, proclaiming it had inappropriately taken sides.” The organization promised a formal review, which would ultimately find that NSBA leadership had acted independently of the White House but had been in close contact with the Biden administration before sending the letter to urge action.
Following the episode, parents’ rights groups and Republicans have been pressing their perceived advantage. In March, Neily testified in a hearing about the NSBA letter and subsequent DOJ actions before the GOP-controlled House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government, claiming that “In the days following the release of DOJ’s memo, we fielded dozens of requests from concerned parents who worried whether they should continue their advocacy work or simply stay home.”
“The NSBA apologized for its letter on October 22, 2021, yet curiously the attorney general has yet to rescind DOJ’s memo,” Neily fumed. “Accordingly, it appears to remain in effect to this day.”