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 Astroturf Parent Organizations
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.
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.