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National conservative groups pour money into local school board races

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The American Principles Project endorsed four local candidates, making them champions of parental rights in what turned out to be a “test case” for Schilling’s group, which is usually active in congressional races.

The American Principles Project wasn’t the only out-of-state group to pour money this summer into ads focused on school board races. What were traditionally grassroots contests are now the latest targets for a handful of national conservative groups with backing from a GOP megadonor seeking to shape how potentially difficult discussions about race and gender identity happen – or don’t happen – in classrooms across the country.

The money, attack ads and mobilization efforts in school board races – from some groups with no geographic ties to local candidates – underscore how education has become one of the top issues the Conservatives are increasingly directing their resources into the 2022 election cycle and beyond. While many parents have been motivated to become more involved in their child’s education during the pandemic, the way students are educated about race and sexuality is now prompting conservatives to become more involved in school boards. , which can have a significant influence on curriculum development in some states.

In one of the starkest examples, the New York-based PAC 1776 Project has endorsed more than 100 school board nominees in states like Florida, Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania this year — and invested a lot of money. money to help them get elected. With financial backing from a group linked to megadonor and GOP billionaire Richard Uihlein, Project 1776 PAC is putting money behind candidates who oppose critical race theory.

“I was trying to target Republicans who would normally vote midterm, but not necessarily in the primary, and encourage them to vote for conservative school board members,” said Ryan Girdusky, founder of Project 1776 PAC, in a statement. interview about PAC efforts in Florida. “It was a shit job.”

Critical Race Theory is an analytical framework originally developed by jurists examining how race and racism have become entrenched in American law and institutions since slavery and Jim Crow. But the term has quickly become a catch-all phrase among conservatives critical of how racial and social issues are taught in the K-12 education system. Most public school officials across the country say they don’t teach the theory, even in districts where lawmakers seek to ban it.

In Florida, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and state conservatives — and Democrats to some extent — have contributed thousands of dollars in campaign donations and offered midterm political endorsements to help score points. seats on school boards. But these clashes have also been shaped by ads produced by political committees with a variety of different backers, from environmental companies at Big Sugar to billionaire megadonors like Uihlein.

The 1776 PAC, which asks anyone who visits its website to report local cases of critical race theory in schools, endorsed 49 applicants in Florida across 21 counties — more than even DeSantis. Of those endorsements, 19 of the nominees were endorsed by both the Republican governor and the PAC. 1776 spent about $400,000 combined on mailings, text messages and other election messages throughout Florida, Girdusky said.

While Florida schools don’t teach critical race theory, state curators led by DeSantis are combing through education for any trace of “woke” content, which they see as an instruction on concepts such as “white privilege”.

1776 mailed for its endorsed candidates, including Bridget Ziegler in Sarasota County, who is married to Florida’s Republican Party vice chairman and was endorsed by DeSantis.

One of the band’s advertisements for Ziegler said Election Day was a chance to “keep Florida schools free”. There’s a photo of DeSantis giving a thumbs-up, declaring that Ziegler will encourage parent involvement, stop critical race theory, remove pornographic materials from libraries and eliminate discussions of transgender people in classrooms .

Some conservatives have pushed for restrictions on transgender students, including athletes, and say the children are too young to discuss gender identity. Democrats and some school officials, however, have fought against such measures, including the Florida law that bars teachers from directing classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, known to opponents. under the name “Don’t Say Gay”.

Ziegler was one of 35 1776-endorsed candidates who won their elections last month.

Since the group’s “resounding victories” in Florida, the group has attracted the attention of popular conservatives. including Ben Shapiro and more than 300 candidates for the new school boards have would have asked for mentions.

“I’m very aware of PAC’s image and reputation,” Girdusky said. “I don’t want it to sound like we support any Republican.”

1776 is supported by a variety of donors, including dozens of individual contributions from across the country. He also received a $900,000 donation from Restoration PAC, largely funded by megadonor Uihlein, in late March, according to FEC filings. This donation represented approximately 35% of the 1776 donations from 2021-2022. Restoration has donated nearly $8.3 million to various political committees over the past two years, including anti-abortion group Women Speak Out and Election Integrity PAC, both linked to Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America .

Similarly, Uihlein’s Restoration PAC has donated $3.2 million to the Arlington-based super PAC American Principals Project since 2020, including $500,000 in late June and $750,000 in May, according to FEC filings.

And in yet another link, 1776 and APP used the Logan Circle Group, a Washington-based public relations firm, to help produce their ads. Logan Circle Group in 2021 threatened to sue journalists on behalf of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) Who reported that former President Donald Trump was distancing himself from the Republican lawmaker following the federal investigation into whether Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old and the had paid for it.

In some cases in Florida, mailings or TV shows have targeted candidates through political committees located far away in the state.

A Tallahassee-based political committee — Education for All — paid for an ad that took aim at Sarah Fortney, a Polk County incumbent who was endorsed by local Democrats this election cycle, as reported by the Lakeland Ledger.

This PAC, according to campaign finance records, secured significant donations from Big Sugar among other sources in 2022, including $225,000 from United States Sugar Corp. and $50,000 from Florida Crystals Corporation. The two Florida-based sugar companies are politically active but not known to fund education-related issues or candidates.

Elsewhere in the Sunshine State, a Jensen Beach, Florida PAC, Leadership for Florida’s Future, ran ads against a Democratic-backed school board candidate in Alachua County, which is hundreds of miles away. .

The ad accused the nominee, Diyonne McGraw, of being “untrustworthy” and claimed she “lied under oath” while opposing an outgoing board member named and approved by DeSantis. The sender cited news reports about an employee of a McGraw-owned group home accused of abusing a disabled person.

“We just can’t trust Diyonne McGraw with our kids,” the ad read.

Leadership for Florida’s Future received a major donation in 2022: $110,000 from Mosaic, a phosphate mining company that has long donated to politicians on both sides of the spectrum, from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Hillary Clinton. The PAC also received $3,500 from a committee of State Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay).

Despite the negative announcement, McGraw won his race in Alachua as one of three Democratic-endorsed candidates to win out of four.

“It was no small victory,” said Carlee Simon, the former superintendent of Alachua schools who now leads a Democrat-linked education PAC. “It was a controversial decision on the part of the community that this is where we are going.”