Recently in a story headlined "Wellesley School District Faces Civil Rights Complaint from Parents Group," GBH covered a civil rights complaint filed against Wellesley by an operation presenting itself as a national grassroots movement, Parents Defending Education. The article reveals that the complaint is empty. Oh, and PDE is not national, not grassroots, and not about parents. From there, it gets worse.
Wellesley’s sin? It offered affinity rooms for students to process their emotions after anti-Asian attacks across the nation. PDE has filed similar complaints against districts grappling with the police murder of George Floyd. The Boston Globe also covered the complaint in "Conservative group says safe space for students of color in Wellesley violated white students’ civil rights." What PDE is really up to is to generate white backlash against the teaching of race and gender. PDE also targets educators—school board members, superintendents, principals, and teachers—for social media attacks, hateful emails, and threats. It’s a prong in an attack against public education.
The first question to ask of a group like PDE is, who is funding it? PDE president Nicole Niely refuses to answer. But there are clues. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Ms. Niely is a veteran political operative affiliated with the Koch network. She is the president of Speech First, set up in 2018 as a pass through for tax deductible donations to the law firm Consovoy McCarthy to file lawsuits against universities over racial justice issues. Tax records show that Speech First paid the firm $950,000 in 2018. Consovoy McCarthy is headed by a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and represents Donald Trump in the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation. Now Consovoy represents Parents Defending Education too. Know any grassroots group of parents that can put that sort of thing together in a few weeks? That’s a lot of bake sales.
The Wellesley complaint reached PDE from an anonymous source and as Ms. Niely confessed she has no idea who submitted it to PDE or if anyone in Wellesley agrees with the complaint. Secrecy is sacred. Consider PDE’s website page that teaches How to Create “Woke At” Pages. It provides detailed instructions for how to set up “an anonymous, safe Instagram page.” First set up a Gmail account “that can’t be tied to you.” Gmail is recommended because the site creator will also need to set up “an anonymous Google Form . . . which allows you to receive anonymous tips” that shields the informant’s identity, even from the Woke At administrator. At all times “we recommend erring on the side of secrecy.”
The Woke At instructions encourage PDE’s local spies to check out social media pages of educators which may reveal woke attitudes. The Understanding Woke Jargon page catalogs terms like “social justice” or “antiracism” the group finds offensive. Questions to Ask School Officials offers gotcha questions that can be asked of woke school officials “with cameras rolling.”
PDE follows the model used by Koch allied right wing operations like Campus Reform, which attack college professors. These groups pay conservative students to inform on professors’ lectures and social media posts. As Professor Isaac Kamola has written the attacks are often launched at women or professors of color who study race or gender and take their work out of context. Grievances are lodged on the Campus Reform website and migrate to other sites, perhaps to Breitbart, and sometimes even to Fox News. That generates hateful emails and social media posts and complaints and threats to university administrators. Professors have been fired or sanctioned, or have had to cancel lectures due to the danger. Trinity College in Hartford shut down for a day because of violent threats.
So when similar threats are made against local educators, don’t think of them as an unfortunate byproduct. They’re the goal.
Even though the Wellesley complaint is going nowhere, Ms. Niely was gleeful. PDE exists to garner publicity that intimidates schools from discussing race and gender and to make sustaining public education unpleasant and dangerous. It’s doing its job.
Maurice T. Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and contributor to MassPoliticsProfs.org blog. Cunningham writes: "Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money, democracy, and oligarchy."