By Jeanne Melvin
When an alleged ‘grassroots, family-led group of ‘ordinary moms’ begins their existence with a budget of more than $1 million, you can be certain there were no bake sales.
~Diane Ravitch comment in Maurice Cunningham: The Rise of an Astroturf Rightwing “Parents” Group.
The seeds of change are cultivated from the ground up at the grassroots level, but what if the seeds are scattered above the ground? Fake grassroots groups, aptly named Astroturf groups, are formed from the top down and are designed to promote their donors’ agenda. It’s important to know which education advocacy groups are supportive of public schools.
Public Education Partners (PEP)
Public Education Partners (PEP) of Ohio is a statewide, grassroots organization whose mission is to preserve, protect, and strengthen public education. The PEP Board is an all-volunteer group of educators and administrators, public school board and city council members, and parents of Ohio public school students.
PEP took root because traditional public schools in Ohio have suffered from an unreasonable number of education policies dealing with high-stakes testing, private/parochial school vouchers, unaccountable charter schools, and other mandates which compete for school district resources already diminished by drastic budget cuts. Students have never been under more developmentally inappropriate and highly stressful policies than what we see in our public schools today.
Local and regional public school advocacy groups have cropped up all over the state to raise awareness of what’s at stake in public education and to fight for change.
One dynamic example is the Heights Coalition for Public Education in Cleveland Heights, a group of concerned community members who have recently been studying school funding, writing letters to the editor, contacting state leaders, and testifying to the Statehouse about the need to pass Ohio’s Fair School Funding plan. The school funding plan came from a bipartisan workgroup of legislators and school finance experts that developed a comprehensive formula to reduce the over-reliance on local property tax and create equity in the state foundation system.
These groups support public education; however, according to education researcher/writer Jan Resseger, Astroturf organizations pretend to represent the grassroots, but instead, they advocate for the interests of their big funders. It is helpful to know who these groups are so that you can keep straight about what they stand for and who they really represent.
Along with this, Jeff Bryant, director of the Education Opportunity Network, recently noted how many groups are about enacting new “school choice” laws to create or expand programs that give parents vouchers so they can remove their children from public schools and send them to private schools at taxpayer expense. Other school choice acts create or expand programs that give parents taxpayer dollars to spend on homeschooling and other educational expenses they incur for their children.
At the national level, National Parents Union claims to be a network of 200 highly effective parent organizations united behind a set of common goals and principles to channel the power of parents. NPU does not list the member organizations on its website, but it’s an umbrella group for various state organizations working on privatizing public schools. Political Science Professor Maurice Cunningham, an expert at following the money behind ed reform advocacy groups, cultivated a series of articles about this Walton-funded Astroturf group that operates nationwide.
Astroturf education organizations are growing like weeds in the Buckeye State. PEP has been in touch with local public ed advocates who see the growth of new education groups that needlessly alarm parents to create mistrust of their local public schools. Marla Kilfoyle, the grassroots liaison to the Network for Public Education, confirmed that many other states see the same proliferation of parent organizations that are not what they pretend to be.
Ohio also has bills in the Ohio House and Senate attacking the teaching of divisive topics and promoting school choice policies to create or expand programs that give parents vouchers.
Ohio Astroturf Parent Organizations
Parents Defending Education (PDE)
PDE claiming to be all working moms filed a racism complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights because of a Columbus City Schools press release taking a strong stance to end the systemic racism within the school district. Since its founding in late March, the group has written letters to the federal Education Department asking for investigations into three other school districts in three different states in response to similar public admissions of systemic racism. Educator and blogger Mercedes Schneider described well the problems surrounding PDE and its outside connections. Here are their issues across the country listed on what’s described as an Indoctrination Map.
Founded as Citizens for a Sound Economy in 1984 by the Koch Brothers, the FreedomWorks website states that it’s time to put parents in charge, by giving them a real choice over how to educate their children. When schools compete, and parents are free to choose, the educational benefits are amazing. FreedomWorks is hosting a cross-country tour called BEST (Building Education for Students Together), touting a “national parent-led education movement to expand education freedom.” A flurry of social media ads from Parents Know Best announced that the tour is coming to Delaware, Ohio, on June 15th.
Before choosing to become involved with any education advocacy group, one needs to put some time and due diligence into finding out if it’s really what it claims to be. Sometimes it can be hard to weed out the Astroturf parent groups funded by education profiteers from a real grassroots organization because it’s not always easy to follow the money.
Parents Rights in Education (PRIE) is a group that’s also called Parents Rights Now. PRIE is an organization founded in Oregon and germinating in other states. Its executive director is Suzanne Gallagher, previously head of Oregon’s Republican Party, former president of the Eagle Forum, and featured speaker at open-up rallies during the pandemic.
PRIE’s funders are not listed on its website, so the organization may not technically be considered an Astroturf at this point. Still, public education advocates will be watching this group’s status over the months to come.
In Hilliard, Ohio, parents formed an Ohio chapter of Parents Rights in Education (PRIE) because they objected to an assignment in a ninth-grade English class to read a poetry book titled The Poet X. They could have discussed their concerns with the school and the school board.
The PRIE website identifies itself as a group of parents wanting to resist the indoctrination of our children. Parents are encouraged to do so by running for the local school board, a prominent goal of the Ohio chapter. Here’s their Facebook page.
Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education are two other Ohio groups listed as parent organizations on PDE’s Indoctrination Map.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet states that Denmark is an unweeded garden of things rank and gross in nature. (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2.) With the green fingers of wealthy education reformers who plant well-funded Astroturf parent groups around the nation, our country’s public school system could become an unweeded garden of things rank and gross in nature as well, unless we speak up and reveal their real nature.
Check on the Astroturf parent education in your state. Spread the word.
Jeanne Melvin is a retired public-school teacher and president of the board of Public Education Partners of Ohio.
Paul "Pat" Eck says
In Oregon, Stand for Children, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, has had a very negative impact in regard to undue influence on educational policies at the state and local level. Gates Foundation pumped millions into Stand for Children that was, in part, used to get Measure 98 on the ballot that passed and by so doing started, for the first time, budgeting by the ballot which can have negative impacts well into the future. Stand for Children is also anti-union and has been very active in supporting their candidates for local school board races. Citizen Advocates for Public Education, in Eugene, has been very successful in rooting-out Stand for Children board members but it has taken over 5 years of intense work to do so. Stand for Children backed school board candidates running for the David Douglas School District in SE Portland, had flashy mailers that other candidates were unable to afford. This group needs to be outed to the public for what it really stands for. and neutralized.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for reminding us of Stand for Children which also has had a prominent feature in states around the country. My own personal reflection: they would have representatives show up at the school and woo parents into thinking they were supportive of public education, then they’d end the meeting by passing the hat for donations. But they were all about setting up charter schools. Originally SFC was for public ed. so it was confusing at first.
Nancy Bailey says
Great to see the Network of Public Education recognize Jeanne Melvin for her work on this blog post!
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks to Diane Ravitch!
Thanks for the work that public education’s defenders are doing, especially Jeanne Melvin.
The 1776 Project Pac was formed to provide funding for school board candidates who oppose the teaching of critical race theory/the 1619 project. Ryan Girdinsky formed the group. In an interview he said, “Our biggest obstacle is teachers unions”. It’s not a stretch to understand that the race theory conflict drummed up by the right wing is part of the anti-union campaign.. The 1619 topic is the attack du jour. Next week, it will be a different attack used to enflame the right wing base. The intended casualty is public education..
Walter Hussman, who is embroiled in the anti-1619 story at the University of North Carolina is one of Arkansas’ biggest proponents of school choice. Walter attended private schools with costs of $50,000-$60,000 per year and teacher ratios of 5 and 7.5 .
Of the 30,000 people who wrote to Biden against CRT/1619 project, one organizing group took credit for generating within 24 hrs., 6,000 of the 30,000 contacts.
Those who have not read, “The new official contents of sex education in Mexico: laicism in the crosshairs”, Epub 3-3-2021, posted at the Scielo site, researched by Armando Javier Diaz Camarena, should. It is broader in scope than the title suggests. The article lays out the world wide campaign to alter curriculum and a reader can infer broader goals. Some of what Girdinsky said in an interview available on the internet sounds quite similar to the goals and means identified in the article about Mexico.
Jeanne Melvin says
Thank you, Linda, for your support for what PEP is striving to accomplish and for helping to expose the school privatizers’ “attacks du jour.” Faux controversy is created to enflame uninformed citizens and to draw attention away from how school-choice legislators are failing our public schools and the families they serve.
In Ohio, the State School Board passed a wonderful resolution to advance equity and condemn racism in our schools: https://publiceducationpartners.org/2021/06/14/a-letter-in-support-of-the-state-boe-of-ohios-equity-resolution/
It’s no surprise that the document has also has been the target of these same censors of truth.
L.L. Bricker says
Good to know about the Ohio School Board. It wouldn’t happen without Ohioans who believe in and support democracy.
We encourage people to respond to the politically motivated agenda to diminish the state school board’s resolution by writing a positive letter in favor of the State School Board’s equity resolution (http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/State-Board/State-Board-Reports-and-Policies/Equity_Resolution.pdf.aspx?lang=en-US), and sending it to Laura Kohler, BOE President, to share with her colleagues.
L. L. Bricker says
Thanks. Will do.
Patricia Sinclair says
We need help in northern Virginia. School board members who support public education are under attack in Loudoun and Fairfax counties.
In Loudoun, the highly funded group uses the innocuous name Fight for Schools. They throw tantrums during school board meetings that have caused the board chair to have to close the public comment portion, effectively silencing over 200 people who had signed up to speak.
They’re frothing at the mouth and throwing punches during school board meetings, alleging that Loudoun County Public Schools is indoctrinating students in critical race theory. Fox News has joined their crusade.
What advice can you offer?
Public furor over what people have been led to believe is CRT in their schools’ curriculum is really getting out of control around the country, especially in Loudoun County. School profiteers and the GOP have created another successful campaign of lies to diminish public education, and other school leaders are looking for successful ways to respond as well.
“A single school district can’t combat a national propaganda machine that’s intent on pushing a particular narrative and driving wedges in communities,” said Tracey Benson, associate executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/critical-race-theory-battles-are-driving-frustrated-exhausted-educators-out-n1273595
On Twitter, Derek Black wrote: “The CRT furor is unlikely to be any easier to dispel than the COVID-hoax has been. That means education and leaders who support it need a different game plan than the one currently being executed.”
I am currently searching for a national coordinated effort to address this problem…
Paul "Pat" Eck says
The Oregon Public Education Network (OPEN) discussed CRT and its adding to the attack on public schools by certain astroturf groups. One part of the solution is to educate the public on the role school boards and school administrators play. A national clearing house on this issue is needed. Keep us posted and good luck.
LAUREN HUSTEDT says
Do you have any resources for fighting back? Are there any left-wing movements to stand up to these astroturf groups?
Jeanne Melvin says
I am continually searching for resources to fight back against the CRT/GOP campaign strategy- will post if I find any coordinated plans.
Diane Ravitch recommended reading this article by Rachel Cohen, who “wrote an interesting post about how progressive advocacy groups, teachers, and activists are responding to broad-brush attacks on schools teaching Critical Race Theory.”