Who is funding anti-LGBTQ “Parents-Rights” groups?

On Oct. 31 The New Yorker magazine published a long read piece in their annals of education section titled “The Right-Wing Mothers Fuelling the School-Board Wars.” 

The story asserted that the group Moms for Liberty “claims that teachers are indoctrinating students with dangerous ideologies. But is the group’s aim protecting kids — or scaring parents?”

Then, on Nov. 1, Slate published a long-read story “The ‘Parental Rights’ Lie at the Heart of GOP Efforts to Target LGBTQ Youth.” That story explores how states throughout the country are targeting LGBTQ+ youth. “Bills and regulations banning youth access to transgender medical care or forbidding discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom have been enacted or proposed in at least 25 states. Most often these bills are defended on the grounds that they protect ‘parental rights.’”

USA TODAY also did an in-depth investigation into how certain political action committees are funding ‘parents’ rights advocates’ who run for school board positions.

Throughout 2022 PGN has reported on the increasingly anti-LGBTQ shift in national politics. There are now hundreds of anti-LGBTQ laws being promulgated in the states by the GOP. In addition, books on LGBTQ issues, abortion and race are being banned

As PGN reported, the Texas GOP solidified its platform in June, declaring homosexuality “abnormal” and calling for an end to same-sex marriage. Also in that platform was a section on “parental rights,” which included not just the schools, but also support for conversion therapy, bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth and total restriction of any sex education that includes sexual orientation or gender identity.

The GOP platform states, “For the purpose of attempting to affirm a person age 21 or under if their perception is inconsistent with their biological sex,” “no medical practioner or provider may engage in the following practices” and lists administration of puberty blockers and hormone treatments as well as “any surgery on healthy body parts of the under age person.” 

This parental rights section also supports conversion therapy — referred to in the platform as “Reintegrative Therapy.” That section bans any penalty for “therapists, psychologists and counselors licensed in the State of Texas” who utilize conversion therapy “when counseling clients of any age with gender dysphoria or unwanted same-sex attraction.”

While it’s clear that right-wing ideology is fueling this trend, which began with Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, what these new reports reveal is that super PACs — an aspect of unregulated “dark money” — is funding candidates and campaigns to ban books and infiltrate school boards. While campaigning for Senate candidates, former president Barack Obama said that school boards were a critical juncture in the GOP takeover of national politics. These reports reveal that the agenda has big money behind it. 

USA TODAY reports that new right-leaning political action committees (PACs) are “pouring money into school board races, aiming to flip control of who governs schools in favor of self-proclaimed parents rights advocates in a way that rivals the role that teachers unions have historically had in these contests.” And they are doing so in states across the country.

PACs and super PACs pool donations from many different people and entities and use that money to try to elect candidates who represent their interests. They may be registered at the federal or state level. 

The USA TODAY investigation underscores Obama’s point: all political offices matter. For much less money than the price of a seat in the House or Senate, these PACs are putting their cash into races for local school boards. The result is creating a radical change in education on a national scale.

USA TODAY reports that a super PAC called the 1776 Project PAC is in the forefront of this movement, emphasizing opposition to any teaching related to racial and social justice or LGBTQ issues on any scale. The group has supported and opposed school board candidates in a dozen states. 

In the New Yorker story, the attacks on education are “an attempt to intimidate” educators, with  emails, phone calls, public-information requests that all question the curricula — no matter how seemingly benign, such as teaching about pioneers like Leonardo da Vinci, Sacagawea, Clara Barton, Duke Ellington, Ada Lovelace. 

The Slate story points out how the Florida House Judiciary Committee, for example, argued that HB 1557, the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, protects “a parent’s fundamental right to make decisions regarding the care and upbringing of his or her child.” 

Slate explains, “Parental rights rhetoric has spread not only to other states but also to other right-wing causes. According to one Heritage Foundation report, parental rights require banning not just LGBTQ+ content but also ‘critical race theory’ from the classroom.”

GOP candidates for higher office like Georgia’s Brian Kemp and Florida’s Ron DeSantis who are both facing challenging re-election campaigns, have embraced this rhetoric. In Nov. 2021, Virginia GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin based much of his campaign on what was being taught in the schools about LGBTQ and race. Over 67,000 Democrats were swayed by his arguments, crossing the aisle to vote for him over Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. 

Republicans want to win school boards as a pivot to higher office but also to control what’s being taught in the schools and to maintain their agenda at every level.

USA TODAY reports that “Other PACs are focusing on specific states and races. A grocery store heiress is behind a PAC spending to influence school board races across the state of Florida, and a federal PAC that typically focuses on federal policy got involved in one Florida county. In Texas, a PAC is raising big money to flip school board seats statewide.” 

Infiltrating school boards is an inexpensive start. As reported in a 2018 survey by the National School Boards Association, 75 percent of respondents said they spent less than $1,000 on their election; 16 percent said they spent between $1,000 and $5,000; and only 9 percent said they spent more than $5,000. Most stayed in their positions for long periods of time. 

How these PACs could alter the midterms is dramatic. More than two dozen states have school board races.

The 1776 Project PAC is focused on race and LGBTQ issues. In October, the group wrote on Twitter, “Radical left-wing ideologues want to lock parents out of the classroom as they teach their children they can be a different gender and then take their kids away from them if they object to it.We will stop at nothing to remove this crap from our schools.”

The 1776 Project PAC has candidates on ballots in Texas, Arkansas, Michigan, Indiana, Florida, Maryland and Virginia, too. The races include a third to half the seats on the boards in those races. 

According to Federal Election Commission filings, the 1776 Project PAC has raised $3 million, but fully half came from donors giving less than $200. Ryan Girdusky, the group’s founder, pointed to the more than 40,000 people who have donated to his PAC.

The largest single donation, $900,000, came from Restoration PAC, a fund backed by billionaire Richard Uihlein that says it wants to bring the country back to its “timeless foundation” of “turning to God and the enforcement of just laws.”

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “Uihlein and Restoration PAC also have funded PACs connected to 2020 election denial and local races in Wisconsin.” Wisconsin is another key swing state for both 2022 and 2024. 

Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice told USA TODAY that the group’s Florida-based PAC is funding candidates that “respect fundamental parental rights.” The term, she explained, describes “any candidate that does not want to co-parent with the government.”

Justice said, “2022 is the year of the parent revolution.” And teaching about race and LGBTQ lives and history is being remodeled one school district — and one well-funded race — at a time.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.