The 1776 Project PAC has been in operation for approximately two weeks. It has not yet tapped any of the school-board candidates it hopes to run in its crusade against the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” in American schools, a cascading source of cultural panic on the right.
The group has, nevertheless, raised more than $55,000, its president claims.
As in-person school-board meetings return across America, some of these oft-sleepy gatherings have grown crowded and contentious, with parents decrying what they claim is an insidious new teaching method. More than anything else, this novel threat is evidenced, they say, by racial sensitivity measures or history classes that highlight racial inequities.
These critics say the schools are teaching “critical race theory,” an academic framework that encourages scholars to examine racial injustice on an institutional level. Nevermind that most of the schools are not teaching the method (with its roots in legal theory, it’s a little advanced for the elementary school set), nor that it can foster a better understanding of inequality. With an infusion of cable TV outrage fuel, state and local school boards are up in arms, with Florida this past week moving to ban swaths of racial education in the name of banning the allegedly dangerous theory.
Behind the scenes, a new crop of right-leaning political organizations has emerged to blast money at the moral panic. They’re funding school board candidates, and also—and perhaps most ominously—asking people to snitch on schools that dare to talk too much about race.
The 1776 Project—its name an apparent jab at the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project,” which highlighted America’s anti-Black history—aims to raise money for school board candidates who oppose “Critical Race Theory or Anti-Racism.” At present, PAC president Ryan Girdusky told The Daily Beast, the group is not backing any candidates. Instead, visitors to the group’s website are met with a popup prompting them to “report a school promoting critical race theory.”
Girdusky said he was “not sure” whether his group would publicize the reports it received, but that he didn’t think doing so would risk intimidation for teachers or other officials. “I’m not sure what privacy rights public schools have when it comes to the education that they have for children,” he said. “If a public school was teaching Creationism to their children, for example, I don’t think they would necessarily have the right of privacy to teach whatever they want to children.”
“There’s no website or public medium that has a list of schools that are promoting critical race theory,” he added. “So, given that all we have are news reports—place to place, county to county, and school board to school board—it’s good to get as much information as possible as to where critical race theory is being taught to children.”
In fact, in the newly hot world of anti-CRT fundraising, one such website had already emerged earlier this spring. Run by the new group “Parents Defending Education,” the organization’s website also encourages readers to report specific schools. Offending academies are also displayed on the site’s “IndoctriNation Map.”
In one representative example, the PDE site labels a Virginia school district with flags for “diversity counseling,” “political indoctrination,” “racial division,” and “sex and gender.”
The district “prioritizes Diversity, Equity and Opportunity,” the PDE dossier on the schools reads. “Racial affinity groups of staff met three times over the summer—the groups included one for Black staff, one for teachers of color, and one called the ‘allyship affinity group,’ described in part as a [sic] ‘a space to recognize and process the impact of privilege on White educators.’ [The district] has a program in which students can apply to become ‘equity ambassadors.’”
PDE also took issue with a virtual event led by a youth LGBTQ group, and with the district’s website offering a page with “Girls For A Change” enrichment programs. “There is no mention of boys on the page, nor any opportunities listed for boys,” the PDE site notes of the enrichment programs. (The programs amount, in reality, to an art group and career-readiness meetups for girls.)
Other, more local organizations have offered their own proposals for surveilling teachers. One Nevada group suggested outfitting teachers with body cameras to ensure that they weren’t teaching what they claimed was critical race theory, the Associated Press reported.
Maurice Cunningham, a recently retired assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is an expert on dark money and has been monitoring the emergence of PDE and other groups this year. Their tactics, he said, are alarming.
“K-12 educators have faced plenty of challenges, particularly in the last year,” Cunningham told The Daily Beast. “This is a new kind of method of intimidation and attack. These superintendents, school boards, principals, and teachers need to understand this and be ready to come back at these groups.”
The source of the groups’ funding is not immediately clear. Girdusky, the 1776 Project PAC founder, claimed his group had received more than $55,000 in donations—none of which, to his knowledge, came from billionaires. (PAC contributions are public record, but his PAC has not existed long enough to have filed disclosures yet.) PDE’s website says it has applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which if achieved, could shed some light on its income via annual tax returns.
Although PDE bills itself as a “national grassroots organization” of parents, Cunningham argued, its operations are more professional than the average Parent Teacher Association chapter.
PDE was incorporated in January. “The next thing you know, this group of moms is hiring a law firm that has represented Donald Trump, has a sophisticated PR approach, has extensive, uh, instructions on how to go about the things they’re encouraging people to do. And you have to say to yourself, okay, that takes a lot of money.”
Neither PDE, nor its president Nicole Neily returned requests for comment about the organization’s fundraising.
Neily is also the founder of the group Speech First, a college-focused group that successfully pressured the University of Michigan to change its policies against harassment and bullying. Neily and other prominent Speech First members had extensive ties to the Koch family’s conservative donor network. (In a 2018 interview with The Nation, Neily declined to say whether the Koch network contributed to Speech First.)
In its case against the University of Michigan, Speech First worked with a top law firm that represented Donald Trump during his in-office legal fights over personal business dealings. PDE also works with the boutique firm, using it to file some of the flurry of complaints it lodged against public schools this spring.
One illustrative PDE complaint, which urges the U.S. Department of Education to investigate a Missouri school district, alleges racial discrimination on the basis of a 2020 blog post by the district’s superintendent.
According to PDE’s complaint, the superintendent’s post “asserts that that [sic] ‘inequitable systems and structures’ exist ‘within our school district.’ Those inequitable systems and structures disadvantage ‘Black children,’ according to [the superintendent], and ‘[c]learly’ require ‘much’ more work to dismantle.”
Cases like this one show that even though many of the schools in question are not teaching critical race theory, a burgeoning right-wing movement seeks to conflate the method with any discussion of race (or, often, gender) that it finds objectionable.
Citizens for Renewing America, another new organization founded by a Trump administration alumn, received Fox News fanfare this week when it rolled out an extensive guide to spotting and combatting supposed critical race theory. It claimed the practice could disguise itself with terms like “anti-racism,” “cultural awareness,” “multiculturalism,” “equitable,” and “examine ‘systems.’” (Fox News has heavily promoted critical race theory panic, mentioning it more than 550 times in under a year, according to one recent analysis.)
The guide claimed, falsely, that opponents of the theory, particularly white people, would be “attacked” and “socially replaced.”
“In other words, because people of color were discriminated against in the past, white people, including children in schools, need to be discriminated against now in order to make up for it and let African Americans catch up,” CRA wrote in its guide.
A CRA spokesperson told The Daily Beast that school board members have reached out to the organization for more information, and that the organization encourages communication with teachers, rather than intimidation.
The guide encouraged people to run in school board elections with help from the 1776 Project PAC, and offered draft legislation for banning critical race theory in a school district, along with proposed punishments for teachers who teach “divisive concepts including that America is fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.” A first offense would earn a teacher 30 days’ unpaid leave.
“Upon second offense, the employee shall be terminated; and the school shall issue a public statement reiterating its commitment to upholding the fundamental American idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”