By Ryan Cook
The Bucks County Municipal primary election for school boards is tomorrow May 18th. Once again wealthy donors are taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s cross-filing laws to run candidates as both Republicans and Democrats. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has put a tremendous strain on students, parents and teachers. The states’ many failures to adequately support students and parents has left many feeling unheard.
In the same way many smaller businesses and investors work together to undermine public services in favor of privatization, the “Libertarian” right will form alliances with the authoritarian right in times of crisis or when it benefits them politically. Now the same private schools and far-right think tanks that work to undermine public education are taking advantage of social media to spread disinformation and elect candidates that further the corporate reform agenda. Documenting these groups is difficult but this article is an attempt to shed some light on three of these local organizations operating throughout Bucks and Southeast PA.
Voice for Choice/PIPE/Keeping Kids in School PAC
One of the largest of these organizations is the “Keeping Kids in School PAC” who has endorsed about 90 school board candidates across Southeastern PA. Half of their approx. $20K was donated by conservative donor, Paul Martino. The rest seems to be raised through smaller fundraisers with coordination between Facebook influencers and members of the Commonwealth Foundation.
The PAC is led by Clarice Schillinger who was formerly the outreach coordinator for State Representative Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery). She formed a small group called “Voice for Choice” that tried suing the Hatboro-Horsham school district to open up for in-person learning around the start of a coronavirus surge in Montgomery County.
In November of 2020 they teamed up with three Montgomery County parents who sued the Montgomery Health Board for closing schools for two weeks. The lawyer spearheading that case is Wally Zimolong who built his reputation fighting unions and calling Black Lives Matter a “terrorist group”. The “concerned parents” who filed suit against the Health Board are John Niehls, head of Coventry Christian Schools; Forbes Contributor, Elizabeth Weir; and Kaitlin Derstine, who along with her husband Aaron, promote Christian Zionism through an Evangelical organization known as “Eagles’ Wings”.
The two parent groups formed a splinter organization and website called “Parents for In-Person Education” (PIPE) which provides sample letters to school boards, a list of all their affiliated Facebook groups and links to Commonwealth Foundation. Kaitlin Derstine, who is also an admin of the PIPE group, posted several announcements throughout the year recruiting volunteers to run or assist in the school board elections and join webinars on “school choice”.
In December of 2020, Clarice was invited on local far-right radio host Dom Giordano’s show on Philadelphia’s Talk Radio 1210 WPHT. During the interview they sowed doubts about “the science” behind COVID restrictions and pushed the idea that teachers’ unions are primarily to blame for the lack of in-person learning. Together they insist on “school choice”, or electing new school board members as a means of solving the problem.
At the start of the new tax year, Clarice and her group formed the Keeping Kids in School PAC (KKISP). After many favorable articles written by right leaning media outlets, Clarice was invited to appear on Steve Bannon’s “War Room”. The title of the episode contains a common racist/anti-Semitic trope: “Orchestrated Chaos… The Globalists’ Engineered Border Crisis”. There she pitched KKISP as a “grassroots” movement to endorse 90 school board candidates in the Southeastern PA region.
Last month, Dom Giordano hosted an episode inviting Clarice from KKISP along with Asra Nomani from “No Left Turn in Education”, and Elana Fishbein from “Parents Defending Education”. Dom and all three spokeswomen helped spread fear that public schools are “indoctrinating” children, anti-racism is a front for communism, teachers are lazy, and unions are destroying schools. The overlap between all three organizations becomes even clearer in their private Facebook groups where they share misinformation and coordinate fundraisers and demonstrations.
Unsurprisingly, their private Facebook groups reveal a significant overlap in membership and support for numerous COVID-related conspiracies.
No Left Turn in Education
“No Left Turn in Education” was formed around October of 2020 by Gladwyne parent Dr. Elana Yaron Fishbein. According to her website, she removed her children from public school last Spring. Upon learning their old public school began lessons on “equity and race”, Dr. Fishbein decided to fight back against what she claims is an attempt to “overturn our society by sowing divisiveness and hate”. From their webpage:
“The social unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd in May 2020 provided the perfect cover for complete assault and takeover of the educational system. Aided by the ‘mainstream media’ and some politicians, many educators and administrators have become the true schoolyard bullies, using taxpayer funds to brainwash the children who are their captive audience.”
Like other fascist hate groups, the organization is largely based on spreading fear over communist “indoctrination” in public schools. Black Lives Matter is considered “Marxist” as is the New York Times 1619 Project on slavery in America, and LGBT rights/education. Many of the resources on their webpage come from “Family Watch International”, a hate group which promotes the idea that homosexuality is a mental disorder caused by childhood trauma, and promotes “conversion therapy” as a means to force people to deny their sexuality.
No Left Turn also pushes the wildly inaccurate idea that man-made climate change is a hoax and teaching kids about carbon emissions is equal to indoctrination. Their Facebook page has begun setting up groups in every state in the U.S. although only a handful are active, including the Southeastern PA group. They recruit volunteers through these groups but it seems like much of their activity is kept off Facebook.
Parents Defending Education
Parents Defending Education (PDE) is another new privatization advocacy group led by Nicole Neily formerly from the Cato Institute. Like “No Left Turn”, they focus heavily on misinformation around new developments in race and gender studies in schools. Rather than encourage thoughtful discussion between teachers and parents over new curriculum material, the organization tries to push the idea that concepts like “social justice” are an attack on “American values” and nearly always used as a pretense for something more sinister. From their website:
“Yet in recent years activists have targeted public, private, and charter schools across the country with a campaign to impose toxic new curriculums and to force our kids into divisive identity groups based on race, ethnicity, religion, and gender. Many schools have already embraced this campaign, and many more are preparing to embrace it.
This new educational mission is not only at war with basic American values, but with our kids’ happiness and ability to succeed in life. Couched in vague slogans such as ‘social justice,’ the new curriculum divides our children into ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ groups. To one, it teaches guilt and shame. To the other, grievance and anger. To all students, it spreads unhappiness, radicalism, and failure.”
Of course the purpose of “Critical Race Theory” is not to divide students. It is to teach students of all backgrounds to better understand racism in the society they live. While any subject can be taught poorly or in a way that is harmful or counter-productive, CRT is used by groups like PDE to refer to practically anything that implies the U.S. is not a “meritocracy”.
Erika Sanzi is the Director of Outreach for PDE and is also a senior fellow at the Ed-privatization think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She was featured on Tucker Carlson last week where she claimed parents are afraid to speak out about curriculum changes for fear of name-calling such as “racist” or “transphobe”.
What can we do?
The amount of money and influence being bought in these school board elections just goes to show that “Trumpism” is far from gone, nor was it a particularly new development in American politics. While we watch the Republican Party purge moderate conservatives who don’t believe the 2020 Presidential election was stolen, Democrats are moving right and stepping in to fill that space. Rhetoric over “partisanship” and “polarization” distracts from real issues most people are facing.
Now, more than ever it is important to know your candidate. Know where they stand on the issues and what organizations are funding their campaigns. Even if you don’t have kids in school, it’s important to show up tomorrow if possible. We cannot let Q-Anon conspiracists, bigots, and neoliberal privatization advocates have any more influence in our schools than they already do.
The following video was created by Indivisible PA and showcases Bucks County school board candidates that are supportive of public schools and the community. Please check your polling place and know your candidate if you are voting tomorrow.