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The NWEF School Board Policy Summit: Leaders From Right-Wing Think Tanks and Conservative Christian Organizations Converged Yesterday In a Small City in Southwestern Virginia

Among the panelists was the Youngkin administration's Assistant State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Elizabeth Schultz...

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By Laura Bowman, who has been advocating for children and public education since 2011. She is the past president of the Roanoke County Council of PTAs, past chair of the Roanoke County Public Schools Parent Advisory Council, past chair of the Prevention Council of Roanoke, and past member of the board of Parents Across America.

Who is recruiting and coaching school board members and local government leaders in Virginia, and for what purpose?

This Saturday, February 26th, leaders from right-wing think tanks and conservative Christian organizations converged in a small city in southwestern Virginia for a School Board Policy Summit. The summit is geared towards recruiting and coaching current and prospective public school board members and local government leaders.

Panelists include representatives from the sponsor organizations, current and former school board members, and local government and community organization leaders.

Judging by its sponsors and panelists, the summit is clearly intended to be a training and networking opportunity for those who believe public schools should be devoid of curriculum, media sources, and policies summit organizers deem unsuitable. There are common threads amongst the summit’s organizers, sponsors, and panelists; they’re hyper-focused on Critical Race Theory, LGBTQIA issues, books in school libraries, and parent choice in education.

Is your school board member, representative on your board of supervisors, or your city council leader planning on attending this summit and if so, what do they hope to achieve by attending? It’s a question worth asking.

Event Sponsors:

Noah Webster Educational Foundation

The Noah Webster Educational Foundation (NWEF) was founded in 2019. The organization is headquartered in Bedford, VA, and is focused on what it calls the steady decline of school performance. According to the NWEF, “Teachers and parents are growing increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied with our schools. Something must be done!”

NWEF is a strong proponent of characterization and vouchers and is affiliated with The Leadership Institute. The Leadership Institute hosts sessions across the country where they train “freedom fighters’’ to “learn how to defeat the radical left.” Here is information on the Leadership Institute and its funding. Here is a NWEF interview featuring Pastor Tom McCracken and Vice Chair of the Roanoke County Public Schools’ school board, Brent Hudson.

Financials: The NWEF was founded in 2019, so it will be a bit before we see their IRS filings.

BEST: Building Education for Students Together

BEST’s mission: “To ignite a national parent-led movement by building, educating, and mobilizing the largest network of parent activists in the country to advocate for their children’s education through the election of school board members and the passage of policies that align with our vision of expanding education freedom.” BEST is focused on charterization and vouchers, curriculum “transparency” (read: censorship) and combating “anti-American content” (CRT, 1619 Project, Common Core).

BEST is a project of FreedomWorks. From FreedomWorks’s website: “America’s public schools are failing, under the influence of teachers’ unions and special interests. This monopolistic system traps students in an environment that is ill-equipped to provide them with the education they need. 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 associated with the State Policy Network, a web of right-wing think tanks and tax-exempt organizations in the US, Canada, and the UK. It’s a right-wing lobbyist group with roots in the Tea Party movement. Funding sources over the years have included the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, the Bradley Foundation, and Phillip Morris.

Financials:

  • FreedomWorks’s total revenue in 2020: $6.8 million
  • FreedomWorks’s total revenue 2008–2020: $96.7 million
  • FreedomWorks Foundation’s total revenue in 2020: $8.3 million
  • FreedomWorks Foundation’s total revenue 2016–2020: $28.7 million

The Family Foundation

The Family Foundation is a Richmond, VA based Christian fundamentalist lobbying organization. It has opposed sex education in schools, equal rights for women/non-discrimination policies, and same sex marriage. It is in favor of gay conversion therapy for minors. The organization lobbies for school choice bills in Virginia’s General Assembly. In 2022 it has been focusing on LGBTQIA students in public schools, books in schools, and teachers indoctrinating their students.

On charterization and vouchers: “With the threat of dangerous philosophies and ideologies being taught to children, the demand for education freedom will continue to grow. The Family Foundation plans to build on our school choice successes and advocate for more choices.” It’s an off-shoot of the Family Policy Council and is affiliated with Focus on the Family. These organizations oppose same sex marriage, LGBTQ adoption, and LGBTQ workplace protections. They support abstinence only sex education and traditional Christian gender roles. The organization lobbies state governments, organizes rallies, and cultivates political leaders.

Financials:

  • The Family Foundation’s total revenue in 2019: $1,803,215

Moms for Liberty

Moms for Liberty (MFL) was started in January, 2021. Its focus is parental rights, Covid mitigation in schools, school curriculum, books and media including topics related to LGBTQIA, Critical Race Theory, and equity. The national MFL leaders say they want to fix public education while chapters can make their own statements on public schools and promote an exodus from them. Chapter leaders are only able to endorse local school board candidates, not state or national political candidates. MFL may have up to 165 chapters in the US.

One of its founders, Tiffany Justice, gave an interview to Newsweek in January, saying the following:

“Social and emotional learning is a vehicle that’s being used to influence curriculum and to kind of weave critical race theory and other types of critical theory, including gender theory into our children’s education and parents have had enough.”

“It doesn’t seem like the teachers unions have any interest in ensuring that our children are getting what they need in school,” she said. “We see that the unions really don’t care about our kids and I think that that’s making parents question every single thing that happens in a school.”

“Your parental rights do not stop at the classroom door and parents have every right to be in the classroom, to see what’s being taught in the classrooms,” she added. “That’s the focus for 2022: Getting parents back into classrooms and making sure that people that are being elected to office are putting kids first in America.”

Financials:

  • Moms for Liberty was founded in 2021, so it will be a bit before we will see the organization’s IRS filings.

Family Research Council Action

Founded in 1992, Family Research Council Action (FRCA) is the legislative arm of the Family Research Council. FRCA lobbies in DC and at the state level, nationwide, to “mobilize Values Voters on behalf of faith, family, and freedom”. Its focus in education: The transgender movement, sex education and LGBT indoctrination in schools, and sexual orientation and gender identity. They’re intent on stopping what they call the “Woke Agenda” and “…the far Left’s indoctrination in our nation’s schools.”

From its website: “It is vital that Christian families and all people of faith pay attention to what is happening at school. Unfortunately, the “climate” or “caring culture” created in schools today by “social justice” promoters amounts to a hostile learning environment for people of faith and for families with traditional values. This hostility is most clearly evident in the increasing sexualization of students and the subject matter taught to them. But the failure to truly partner with parents, poor governance practices in many school systems, and lack of transparency are also essentially an assault on parental rights to know what our children are taught and to direct their upbringing, especially for Christians. Christian parents have the same rights as any other parent in school. We have every right to be in public schools and every right to expect that our views will be respected. We know that with God anything is possible, especially in this wonderful nation in which we are blessed to live.”

Josh Duggar was the executive director for the FRC until he was found to have molested children, including his sisters.

Funding:

  • The FRC’s total reported revenue for 2019 was $17,403,327

The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy

Located in Springfield, VA, the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy (TJIPP) was founded in 1985. It’s a right of center, libertarian think tank. Its staff researches and analyzes the economic impact of legislation, publishes issue papers, and lobbies members of Virginia’s General Assembly to promote legislation. The TJIPP includes the Excellence in Education Center and through it, promotes vouchers, education savings accounts, and charterization.

The organization has ties to ALEC, Koch, and the Heritage Foundation. In addition to its push for school choice, the organization is heavy into climate change denial. TJIPP is associated with the State Policy Network (SPN), a web of right-wing think tanks and tax-exempt organizations in the US, Canada, and the UK. SPN is a right-wing lobbyist group with roots in the Tea Party movement. Funding sources over the years have included the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, the Bradley Foundation, and Phillip Morris.

Its mission: “To provide Virginia’s political, business, academic, community and media leadership with thoughtful, realistic, useful and non-partisan analysis of public policy issues confronting our Commonwealth.” Its “alternative policy ideas focus on state and local issues and are based on the Institute’s belief in free markets, limited government and individual responsibility.”

Funding:

  • The TJIPP’s total reported revenue for 2019 was $453,979

A who’s who of the speakers:

Panel #1: An inside look at the job

Panelists:

Elizabeth Schultz

Schultz is Virginia’s new Assistant State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Schultz served on the Fairfax County School Board from 2011 to 2019 and was a senior fellow for Parents Defending Education (PDE). Founded in 2021, PDE is a right leaning organization. Because it’s a newly formed organization, we will not be able to see its funding sources for a bit, but I anticipate seeing deep pockets for a “grassroots” organization. On its website, the organization has an “incident report” form where parents can relay problems they see in their children’s schools to the organization. Schultz voted against the inclusion of gender identity in the Fairfax County school system’s non-discrimination policy. She insisted on teaching “both sides” of the Holocaust. She implied immigrant parents aren’t smart enough to understand what happens in their children’s schools. She believes CRT is being embedded into the K-12 curriculum.

Here is PDE’s description of the organization: “Parents Defending Education is a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas. Through network and coalition building, investigative reporting, litigation, and engagement on local, state, and national policies, we are fighting indoctrination in the classroom — and for the restoration of a healthy, non-political education for our kids.”

Willie Deutsch:

Deutsch served on the Prince William County school board from 2015–2019. He was only 25 when he first ran for school board and his runs were endorsed by his local Republican party. I’m not seeing a lot of controversy around his tenure on the PWCS school board. He has been outspoken on the issue of mask wearing in schools.

In a Noah Webster Education Foundation interview, he was asked about school choice. He said PWCS has trade and fine arts schools, students can transfer to different schools in PWCS, and PWCS has two schools that aren’t considered charter schools but students apply to attend the schools, are required to do community service, and wear uniforms. He said the schools include less sports and a greater focus on academics. He also spoke about dual enrollment. When pressed to answer as to whether he believes dollars should follow kids, he said school board members don’t get into policymaking at the state level, but parents do need to make the best decisions for their kids, and competition is a good thing.

Laura Hughes

Hughes is an at-large school board member in Virginia Beach Public Schools and has served on the board since January, 2019. Her Facebook page features anti-mask and anti-vaccination rhetoric and CRT disinformation. She’s been in the news for: Not wearing a mask at a school board meeting when there was a public health order to do so, her poor interactions with teachers creating a hostile workplace, banning books from school libraries, and forming a sham organization called the ‘Virginia Beach Teachers’ Association’.

Karen Hiltz:

Hiltz is the Secretary/Treasurer at the Noah Webster Educational Foundation (see NWEF above). She served on the Franklin County School Board and on the board of the Smith Mountain Lake Christian Academy. She’s the author of two books: ‘The Case for Choice’ and ‘The Apple Report’. A strong and longtime advocate for parental choice in education, she’s stated that US students are behind other nations in math and English based upon PISA scores. Public school advocates will understand that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison and should not be the basis for forming opinions about student successes in the US.

From her Apple Report on Facebook on the election of Glenn Youngkin: “Continue to fight for your children against the woke, radical lunacy. There will be many who embrace the change and I pray they outnumber those who resist. The governor must rely on the 10th Amendment (states rights) and not back down, cower, or waiver when it comes to our schools and CRT, SEL, masks, vaccines, curriculum, school choice, and more. If he stands firm, he will be a very successful governor.”

Also from Karen Hiltz’ social media: “As I’ve said many times, the CCP virus is the best thing that’s happened to education. Parents saw, heard, and experienced what their children were being taught and they DID NOT like what they were seeing.”

Panel # 2: Essential external relationships

Panelists:

Karen Hiltz (see above)

Alyson Satterwhite

Satterwhite served on the Prince William County school board from January 2012-December 2019. She currently serves as Assistant to the Board of Equalization in Prince William County (2020-Present). This job entails acting on appeals of real estate assessment from property owners. I’m not seeing anything controversial online concerning Ms. Satterwhite. She was endorsed by her local Republican party and challenged another school board member for the board’s Chair position. In the news she stated that, although winning candidates had been endorsed by political parties, the job should be non-partisan in nature.

Lorie Smith

Smith serves on the Franklin County Board of Supervisors. She served on the Waynesboro School Board from 2002–2006. I’m not seeing anything controversial online concerning Ms. Smith. From Smith’s campaign website: “I believe strongly in the tenants (sic) of the Republican Creed, namely the importance of free enterprise, fiscal responsibility, and budgetary restraints. I also believe citizens are entitled to a society free of governmental burden, and that faith in God, as recognized by our Founding Fathers, is essential to the moral fiber of the nation.”

Jeff Helgeson

Helgeson has served on the Lynchburg City Council. From his campaign website: “Jeff improves education for students by: Promoting public accountability, pressing for measurable results, supporting qualified leadership, asking the difficult questions and expecting concrete results to prepare schoolchildren for the future. Jeff promotes conservative values by: Educating the public about wasteful spending while fighting for fiscal discipline, defending 2nd Amendment rights for homeowners and city employees, personally supporting a variety of pro-family, pro-life causes and campaigns, volunteering for over a decade as a big brother in the Big Brother/Big Sister program in Central Virginia.”

From Helgeson’s Twitter account on August 27, 2021: “Lynchburg taxpayers pay a fortune for Lynchburg City Schools, over $100m annually. The purpose is to educate students. The latest SOL tests show: * only 60% passed reading * only 46% passed science * only 36% passed mathematics. They could fail for free and save $100m.”

Helgeson’s tweets also include:

“Women have babies, men don’t…”

“The Marxists are aiming to destroy America”

A YouTube video concerning Kyle Rittenhouse that includes a link to purchase an “F Joe Biden” shirt.

Christian Braunlich

Braunlich is president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy (see above). He served as the President of the Virginia State Board of Education for four years. He served on the Fairfax County school board for eight years. He was the vice president of the Center for Education Reform (CER). CER is a right-wing non-profit and is affiliated with the State Policy Network (see above). It’s a pro-education privatization group that promotes charter schools and vouchers. CER is a member of ALEC and supports ALEC’s push to privatize public education.

On a personal note: Many years ago, when Braunlich was the President of the Virginia BOE, I went to PTA training in Richmond and he spoke during a presentation. He got visibly angry and frustrated when parents started questioning the value of SOL tests. His reaction was unsettling to those of us in the room, and I still remember it to this day.

Panel # 3: What parents care about

Panelists:

Amy Snead

Snead is the chapter chair for Moms for Liberty-Bedford County (see MFL above). Snead is an admin in the private Facebook group, Bedford County Freedom Fighters (see below, panelist Bennett). Snead is in the press for her comments on masks in schools, removing twelve books from the school library (including ‘The Glass Castle’, ‘The Kite Runner’, and ‘Beloved’), and for calling out a teacher in a local elementary school during a board of supervisors meeting. At the meeting, she said the teacher “…claims to be non-binary and is making a big deal out of it.” A news story reports the teacher requested to not be referred to by titles that would identify her sex or marital status.

Mary Katherine Bennett

Bennett is the founding member of the Bedford County Patriots. She’s an administrator in the private Facebook group, Bedford County Freedom Fighters. The group’s description: “Concerned Citizens of Bedford County, Virginia Advocating for Parent Choice & Freedom.” Her social media as of late as it pertains to education is focused on masks, vaccines, and CRT.

David V. Dietrich

Dietrich retired after 20 years from his job as a national security analyst and worked as an adjunct political science instructor from 2016–2021. This is the extent of what is readily available online about Dietrich.

Elicia Brand

Brand is Corporate Vice President of Digital Media and Strategic Brand Partnerships. She’s the Founder of Army of Parents. Army of Parents states it’s a group of parents focused on individual freedom and liberty, and parent choice.

Brand has focused on masks, “rigorous education”, CRT, parent rights, transparency in education, the deep state, and the sexual assault of student in a Loudoun County School in the girls’ bathroom. (Parents of the victim said the assailant is “gender fluid” and wore a skirt when the assault occurred.)

Brand has volunteered with Fight for Schools and started Army of Parents to support its efforts. Fight for Schools is led by Ian Prior. Prior served as the deputy director in Trump’s Department of Justice. Fight for Schools receives funding from groups opposed to CRT.

DeLois Stallman

Stallman is a Virginia attorney and homeschooling mom who wrote a position paper on critical race theory (CRT) for then-candidate Glenn Youngkin. She is pro-school choice including charter schools and vouchers. In an interview on CRT and social emotional learning with Steve Bannon, she said she was only going to use the website Gettr to share information, and she re-posts a lot from Bannon on the site. Gettr is an alternative to Twitter and the platform has been widely criticized for allowing users to share racist, anti-Semitic, and terrorist content.

Panel # 4: You are not alone

Panelists:

Meg Kilgannon

Kilgannon is a Senior Fellow for Education Studies at Family Research Council (see above). She served at the U.S. Department of Education as Director of the Office of Faith and Opportunity Initiatives in the Trump Administration. Her focus in education: “…bills opposing the teaching of critical race theory (CRT), protecting students from gender identity ideology, providing oversight of libraries, and encouraging school curricula transparency.” She is a self-described “culture war parent” and she believes transgender people are in a cult.

Josiah Gaiter

Gaiter is the Deputy Director of Programs at FreedomWorks (see above). Looking at Gaiter’s social media, he is pro-school choice and anti-teachers union, and appears to be an ardent fan of Corey DeAngelis, a paid proponent for school choice. Gaiter was homeschooled and his bio states he was a public school teacher in middle and high schools in Texas, but I’m unable to find information on where he taught.

Melvin Adams

Adams is the founder of the Noah Webster Educational Foundation (see above). He was a pastor in Idaho, ran for a Virginia state senate seat, chaired the Franklin County GOP Committee, and served on the 5th Congressional District of the Virginia Republican Party. He is a proponent of school choice and has focused a lot of time and energy on CRT, books, and LGBTQIA issues in K-12 schools. According to the Insurrection Index, Adams was present at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

From his recent Facebook posts: “Some think that Fauci, almost single handedly, took this country to the brink! The only reason he is backing down now is because all the politics show that Americans are done with the mandates, masks, and manipulation he helped instigate. Democrats are desperate for their polls to go up as we approach the midterm elections. So, has this all been political theater and bogus science all along or has Fauci saved the species? What do you think?”

Christian Braunlich (see above)

Candi Cushman

Cushman is the Vice President of Grassroots and Communications Strategies for the Family Foundation (see above). Prior to this, she worked at Focus on the Family as “a national expert on education issues affecting public and private education, including school choice initiatives, sexual agendas in public schools, and parental rights issues.” She’s recently spoken against Loudoun County Public Schools’ transgender policies.

Here is the link to the NWEF School Board Policy Summit

Laura Bowman has been advocating for children and public education since 2011. She is the past president of the Roanoke County Council of PTAs, past chair of the Roanoke County Public Schools Parent Advisory Council, past chair of the Prevention Council of Roanoke, and past member of the board of Parents Across America.

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