Oroville Mercury-Register

Conservati­ves organize for school battles

- By Thomas Beaumont and Stephen Groves

A loose network of conservati­ve groups lend support to local activists engaged in culture wars at schools.

MEQUON, WIS. >> A loose network of conservati­ve groups with ties to major Republican donors and partyalign­ed think tanks is quietly lending firepower to local activists engaged in culture war fights in schools across the country.

While they are drawn by the anger of parents opposed to school policies on racial history or COVID-19 protocols like mask mandates, the groups are often run by political operatives and lawyers standing ready to amplify local disputes.

Funding a recall

In a wealthy Milwaukee suburb, a law firm heavily financed by a conservati­ve foundation that has fought climate change mitigation and that has ties to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election helped parents seeking to recall Mequon Thiensvill­e school board members, chiefly over the board’s hiring of a diversity consultant. A new national advocacy group, Parents Defending Education, promoted the Wisconsin parents’ tactics as a model.

In Loudoun County, Virginia, a Justice Department spokespers­on in the Trump administra­tion rallied parents in a recall effort sparked by opposition to a district racial equity program. In Brownsburg, Indiana, a leader of a national network of parents opposed to anti-racist school programs helped a mother obtain a lawyer when the district’s superinten­dent blocked her from following his Twitter account.

This growing support network highlights the energy and resources being poured into the cauldron of political debate in the nation’s schools. Republican­s hope the efforts lay the groundwork for a comeback in congressio­nal elections next year. Some see the burst of local organizing on the right as reminiscen­t of a movement that helped power the GOP takeover of the House 10 years ago.

“It seems very tea partyish to me,” said Dan Lennington, a lawyer with the conservati­ve Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which has offered free legal advice to several parent groups pursuing or weighing school board recalls, including the one in Mequon. “These are ingredient­s for having an impact on future elections.”

Lennington’s group is funded in part by the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that supports conservati­ve causes. The foundation’s secretary, GOP lawyer Cleta Mitchell, advised Trump as he sought to overturn the 2020 election results and has since worked to push for tighter state voting laws.

Like the tea party movement, the groups have been labeled “astroturf” by some opponents — activism manufactur­ed by powerful interests to look like grassroots organizing.

“Outsiders are tapping into some genuine concerns, but the framing of the issues are largely regularize­d by national groups,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, who has written on the nationaliz­ation of education.

Harnessing outrage

But the advocates and their outside backup argue they’re harnessing real outrage and working to counter the disproport­ionate influence of liberal groups in schools.

“There’s a misconcept­ion out there that this is part of some national right-wing agenda,” said Amber Schroeder, a 39-year-old parent of four who is helping lead the Mequon recall. “We’re the ones pushing back on our own here against an extreme liberal agenda by the teachers union.”

The political tracking website Ballotpedi­a counts about 30 active school board recall efforts nationwide. Some are focused chiefly on disputes over anti-racism training and education in schools, often labeled critical race theory. Others were prompted by debates over school policies on transgende­r students and pandemic public health measures.

Local parent activists are quick to claim credit for that work, and the outside groups offering legal help, research, organizing tools and media training are often reluctant to discuss their role.

Among those is Parents Defending Education, an Arlington, Virginia-based group formed in January and dedicated to “fighting indoctrina­tion in the classroom.” It provides templates for requesting public records, a guide to parent rights, organizing strategies and talking points.

“We created Parents Defending Education because we believe our children deserve to learn how to think at school — not what to think,” its president, Nicole Neily, wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

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 ?? MORRY GASH — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Supporters to recall the entire Mequon-Thiensvill­e School District board wave at cars outside Homestead High School in Mequon, Wis., on Monday.
MORRY GASH — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Supporters to recall the entire Mequon-Thiensvill­e School District board wave at cars outside Homestead High School in Mequon, Wis., on Monday.

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