New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

Dark money behind school board conflicts

- By state Rep. Christine Palm and Frank Hanley Santoro Christine Palm is the state representa­tive for the 36th Connecticu­t General Assembly District. Frank Hanley Santoro is a former assistant U.S. attorney.

Schools are the latest battlegrou­nd in the culture wars. Protests over issues such as critical race theory, masks and vaccines have cropped up all over the state, including in the towns of Guilford, New Canaan, Glastonbur­y, Haddam, Cheshire, Bristol and Fairfield. The protesters often characteri­ze themselves as concerned parents. This may be partially true, but it is not the whole story. If you dig deep enough, you will find a web of dark money fueling political operatives in so-called “astroturf” groups — those that purport to be grassroots but are in fact formed and funded by hidden corporate and political sponsors. Their agenda has little to do with improving public education.

Protesters have a right to state their opinions (even suicidal ones in the case of vaccine opposition). But as the rightwing agenda increasing­ly infiltrate­s small towns, members of local school boards might find themselves portrayed as purveyors of an “increasing­ly hostile” threat to the community “rooted in Marxism” who will “stop at nothing” as they are “trying to socially replace you.” Those are words from the websites of the Center For Renewing America and its Citizens Renewing America Toolkit.

In fact, hostility against board of education members has gotten so ugly that the National School Boards Associatio­n this past week asked President Biden for help from federal law enforcemen­t agencies. In reality, most of these folks are hardworkin­g volunteers who are far more concerned with balancing a budget than they are with a radical agenda — be it on the left or the right. And yet, recently in Haddam, police had to escort board members to their cars following a contentiou­s meeting in which anti-maskers shouted through a bullhorn and drowned out much of the proceeding­s.

Clearly, something is afoot. Why is this happening suddenly and simultaneo­usly in so many different places around the state (and indeed the country)? Why is the pattern so similar? Why does it seem peculiar to affluent Connecticu­t towns? Why do some protests turn disruptive? Why pick on CRT, which schools don’t even teach (it’s a post-secondary pedagogica­l tool)? This doesn’t sound like something that just happened to occur to parents at a local bake sale.

The explanatio­n may lie with Steve Bannon. According to Bannon, “This is the Tea Party to the 10th power,” and “The path to save the nation is very simple. It’s going to go through the school boards.” Before he was pardoned by Trump, Bannon was the guy arrested at sea off Westbrook on a Chinese billionair­e’s yacht for allegedly siphoning over a million dollars from a “We Build the Wall” scheme. According to news reports, he was also accused by an ex-wife of objecting to the Archer

School in Los Angeles for his daughters because, she said, he “didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.”

The phenomenon may also be explained by Nicole Neily — the president of Parents Defending Education, whose targets include several Connecticu­t towns. PDE describes itself as a “grassroots” organizati­on, and Neily once was quoted as saying, “We’re all working moms.” But according to several sources including Sourcewatc­h, Neily is a veteran operative of the Koch network. She’s not alone. Other astroturf operatives include Russ Vought, a former Trump official whose group publishes the “Toolkit” for taking over school boards; Christophe­r Rufo, whose antiCRT activism earned him an invitation to the Trump White House; and Keri Rodriques, who was reportedly paid $388,000 in 2017 and 2018 for her advocacy work. Anti-CRT activity seems a profitable cottage industry for the apparatchi­ks of MAGA world.

Dark money is hard to ferret out because astroturf groups do not disclose their funders. But some informatio­n can be found. Among the sources are MassPoliti­, the blog of Diane Ravitch, UnKochMyCa­, and a book called “Outside Money in School Board Elections.” Google searches also help. Our informatio­n is based largely on these sources.

A picture emerges of a shadowy and labyrinthi­ne network of astroturf groups funded by big money. Funders include the Koch network, Turning Points USA, the DeVos Family Foundation, the Ed Uihlein Foundation, Donors’ Trust, and the Heritage Foundation. Some astroturf groups are local (Connecticu­t Parents Union). Most are national. Many have happy names like Citizens for Renewing America, the Center for Renewing America, Free to Learn, National Parents Union, Massachuse­tts Parents United, No Left Turn in Education, Moms for Liberty, and Fight for Schools. Some encourage their readers to report incidents (i.e., spy on teachers). One group calling itself School Board Watchlist models disruptive behavior on its website.

Our point is not necessaril­y to question the sincerity of the self-appointed disrupters, misguided though they are. But we believe they are pawns in a darker power grab of which they are probably unaware. The next time you hear that public schools are a threat to freedom, it’s good idea to follow the money.

 ?? Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? A woman carrying a sign protesting the teaching of critical race theory arrives at a Board of Education meeting at Central Middle School in Greenwich in June.
Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticu­t Media A woman carrying a sign protesting the teaching of critical race theory arrives at a Board of Education meeting at Central Middle School in Greenwich in June.

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