Today
Mon 29 November 2021

Steve Bannon is leading an attack on the US education system. But who are the radical right interests behind ‘concerned moms’? And will this new front in the culture wars spread to the UK?

Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has been charged with contempt of Congress – but while he now risks a prison stay, the chaos and cruelty he advocated for is taking hold of the US school system.

Speaking on his podcast in May, Bannon explained how “the path to save the nation is very simple – it’s going to go through the school boards.”

Those school boards have now become a target for far-right groups such as the Proud Boys, with the Republican Party and its base turning education – and particularly education on race – into its latest front of the culture war.

That war is inflaming real-life violence at schools across the country. The violence has included deposits of dead rodents on school board members’ doorsteps and the unfurling of Nazi flags at meetings.

Last week, members of the neo-Nazi group showed up at a New Hanover County school board meeting. They covered their faces, which was ironic considering the meeting was to discuss mask mandates.

In response to the increased aggression, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) wrote to President Joe Biden asking him “to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.” Some members have reported suicidal thoughts.

Writer and journalist Alexandra Alvarova, who grew up in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, told Byline Times how during Communist rule, a similar structure to school boards existed, known as “trust committees”. The people on these committees, she explained, “were extremely fanatic. Their main qualification was aggressive behaviour and support of the regime. Teachers were scared s***less.”

Central to the row in US schools is the accusation that students are taught critical race theory (CRT) – an academic discipline that explores ideas about white privilege and institutionalised racism. The NSBA letter explained how “many public school officials are facing physical threats because of propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula” even though “critical race theory is not taught in public schools.”

This has not stopped right-wing and white supremacist actors from launching attacks on the US school system which they accuse of indoctrinating children. One headteacher has lost his job, after being accused of teaching CRT. And while many of these groups appear to be grassroots efforts led by “concerned moms”, the reality is a complex web of dark money, radical-right foundations and Trump-linked activists. 

Meanwhile, here in the UK, critical race theory remains a controversial topic. In 2020, the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch argued that “any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”

Toby Young’s Free Speech Union has the subject in its sights, calling it “political indoctrination” and presenting schools minister Nadhim Zahawi with a dossier of 15 examples where schools have allegedly partaken in “politicised teaching”. The Henry Jackson Society’s executive director Dr Alan Mendoza has also attacked the subject, calling it “new-age hokum“. The Society published an article by conservative commentator Calvin Robinson which claimed hard-left groups “are campaigning for schools to teach Critical Race Theory (CRT), in an attempt to over-compensate for what they judge to be centuries of inequality.”

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The Mom Army

Leading the charge against CRT Parents Defending Education (PDE), a self-described “national grassroots organisation working to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas.” It provides its members with guides on how to expose “the hijacking of our schools, the politicisation and corruption of our educational system.”

The people behind PDE are experienced political operators with links to billionaire disaster capitalists the Koch Brothers and the Trump regime. 

The organisation’s President, Nicole Neily, has worked for a range of Koch-linked projects. The Koch family are fossil fuel billionaires who fund a range of anti-rights causes in the US and globally, are pro-Hard Brexit and anti-government intervention. 

Her roles include President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, the Cato Institute’s manager of external relations, and the coalition relations manager for FreedomWorks’ Center for Global Economic Growth. Neily was the sole employee of Speech First, and served as a board member for Koch-affiliated Young Voices and Young Americans for Liberty.

Neily also has links to the Independent Women’s Forum, an anti-feminist organisation predominantly funded by right-wing foundations, including the Koch brothersClaude R. Lambe Foundation

The Independent Women’s Forum condemns the teaching of critical race theory, saying its premises “necessarily make CRT a revolutionary ideology incompatible with the American system”. It seeks to “purge the influence of CRT.”

Its chair is Heather Higgins – a “gold circle” member of the Council for National Policy (CNP). The organisation brings together radical, religious and far-right powers including anti-gender organisations Alliance Defending Freedom and the Liberty Counsel, radical-right think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, and Trump staffers Kellyanne Conway and the DeVos Family – Betsy DeVos was Trump’s Education Secretary. 

DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was one of the founding donors of the Family Research Council (FRC) – a CNP organisation with CRT in its sights. The FRC has launched a campaign titled “For The Sake Of Our Children”, claiming CRT has “taken over society and invaded our schools” and that “our kids are constantly bombarded with an anti-biblical worldview.”

FRC’s founder, James Dobson, also set up the Focus on the Family. The Prince and DeVos families have donated $70 million and $100 million respectively to both organisations.

The CNP has played a crucial role in mobilising the anti-CRT movement through media platforms such as the Daily Caller and Salem Media, which amplify the partisan messaging to their audiences in the guise of ‘news’. Both are headed by CNP members.

Niely’s colleague at PDE is Aimee Viana, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics under Trump. Her husband, Jose Viana, is another successful political operative, while his brother-in-law Matthew Schlapp (married to Jose Viana’s sister), is an influential lobbyist and the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organises the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

Senior fellow at PDE, Elizabeth Schultz, was appointed by Betsy DeVos to be deputy director of an office within the Education Department.

Then there’s Rachel Hannabass, who previously worked for the Leadership Institute. The organisation which was set up to train conservative activists counts Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence in its alumni, while the UK’s Vote Leave founder Matt Elliott has attended at least one of its events. The Institute runs a campus watch project to expose left-wing academics and provides training to people on winning school board seats.

A further group is Moms for Liberty, whose members proudly claim “we do not co-parent with the Government.”

It boasts 140 chapters in 32 states with roughly 60,000 active members. It denies being funded by dark money and laughed when a reporter asked if it was receiving financial support from Republican donors.

Republicans have praised Moms for Liberty for generating support for the GOP. Christian Ziegler, vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party and a Sarasota County commissioner, credits the group and the broader issue of “parental rights” for bringing in new voters. Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has said he will get the “political apparatus involved so we can make sure there’s not a single school board member who supports critical race theory.”


The Fox Effect

As with Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty presents as a grassroots group but its leaders boast political credentials. The group’s Quisha King, who has appeared on Fox News, was a Republican strategist and regional engagement coordinator for the Republican National Committee in 2020. Bridget Ziegler (wife of Christian), another Fox News guest and formerly part of Moms for Liberty, is a Republican activist.

Fox has played a vital role in presenting anti-CRT voices as grassroots. It billed Deborah Flora as a “mother of two” – she is in fact director of Parents United America and hosts her own right-wing radio programme on a station owned by the CNP-linked Salem Media Group. 

Since the start of 2021, Fox News has posted about CRT 85 times on Facebook, leading to more than 1.5 million interactions. Its presenter Sean Hannity has posted 33 times with 1.8 million interactions.

Trump’s favourite TV station also hosted Elana Fishbein, who launched the group No Left Turn In Education and appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight. Fishbein claims the education system is pushing an “outright rejection of values which have long been at the core of the American experience”. The group shares extreme memes on social media and has become one of the largest groups targeting school boards.

Fishbein has also won support from the CNP-linked Heritage Foundation. She claims to have taken part in a private briefing hosted by the Heritage Foundation during the spring. The briefing featured lawmakers from Idaho, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Texas and other states to discuss model legislation to block critical race theory. 

British Conservative MPs have close ties to the Heritage Foundation – Liam Fox and Owen Paterson have addressed the organisation, as has Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. 

Following Fishbein’s appearance on Carlson’s show, personal injury lawyer Jonathan O’Brien volunteered to help out with No Left Turn, assisting in a legal case against a charter school where pupils were asked to disclose disabilities, ethnic and sexual identity. 

The charter school’s CEO called the suit an “ill-intentioned” attack by activists on “any conversation about racism or slavery that paints aspects of our country’s past in a negative light.” The litigation continues, although the district has asked that it be dismissed.

The case garnered the attention of right-wing forces, with O’Brien joining a legal coalition focused on CRT. The coalition includes Christopher Rufo, of the Manhattan Institute, who claims he was in touch with Donald Trump’s staff before the President issued an executive order in September 2020 that banned critical race theory’s use by federal agencies. Rufo famously tweeted that the strategy was to “decodify” the term CRT to drive up negative perceptions and make it “toxic.” 

It was Rufo who “initially exploited the term ‘Critical Race Theory,’” author of Shadow Network, Anne Nelson, explained to Byline Times. “He appeared on Fox News and started talking about it, artificially connecting the concept to various events that were creating anxiety in swing voters. That includes our polarising conversation about race, as well as parents’ struggles with their children and Covid-19, and the pressure working parents feel with school closures. The radical right activists go to school board meetings and focus all of this anxiety on something called ‘CRT’ that few of them can even define. It puts a convenient label on everything they’re uncomfortable with.”


From Lock Her Up to School Boards

These are just a few of dozens of activist groups, astroturf or grassroots, radicalising parents against critical race theory. 

But the involvement of 1776 Action shows how right-wing actors can evolve to use their resources to focus on a new line of attack. Originally called the American Legacy Centre, the nonprofit “dark money” organisation – which is not required to disclose its donors – campaigned against Clinton in 2016 and Democrat candidates in 2018. Set up in 2014, the activists raised over $2.3 million over the next five years.

Now rebranded 1776 Action, it uses its platform to attack critical race theory – and it is backed by powerful political operatives. It has ties to several of former President Donald Trump’s allies, including Newt Gingrich and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. 

Other organisations include Fight for Schools, Massachusetts Parents United, EdFirstNC, the Eagle Forum-linked Parents Rights in Education.

“The problem is that the radical right is using this language as an effective electoral mechanism,” Anne Nelson said to Byline Times. “And that could make future advances in racial justice impossible.”

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