Tuesday, February 13, 2024

New Anti-Woke School Board Association

Meet the newest culture war krew. It's the School Boards for Academic Excellence.

Their website, which is a bit sparse at the moment, presents a group that stands up for Really Good Stuff! Empowering school boards! A vision that is "focused squarely on academic excellence and student achievement, ensuring that every child, regardless of circumstance, is equipped to reach their highest potential." They believe that "the education of AmericaŹ¼s children is not a partisan issue" because Americans "across the ideological spectrum" all want an education system "focused on academic excellence and student achievement."

Education should be addressed at local level. Work with parents and teachers. Healthy, respectful debate! The "inherent dignity and value of all human beings." And for sure:
We value collaboration – regardless of political affiliation – to ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed.

It all sounds great. And yet, their first big piece of press is an op-ed on the Fox News website headlined, "New school boards challenge woke bureaucracy that leaves kids behind." Well, let's dig a bit. Maybe we'll find something reassuring. Maybe their reasonable face isn't a bait and switch at all.

The "team" at SBAE consists of four individuals. 

Board member Lance Christensen is the VP of Education Policy for the California Policy Center, an affiliate of the State Policy Network, the web of right-wing advocacy and pressure thinky tanks. They put big pressure on the state to open school buildings and managed to create some NAACP infighting over charters. They brought a case to get a union thrown out as the bargaining unit in a district, and they run a "parents union" in four California regions. Christensen has also worked with the Reason Foundation and, according to the SBAE site, "was also one of the principal architects of the recent school choice initiative proposal in California."

Board member Ward Cassidy is on staff at the Kansas Policy Institute as the Executive Director for Kansas School Board Resource Center. KPI was founded by long-time Koch operative George Pearson; it hangs with the usual thinky tank advocacy groups like State Policy Network and ALEC. Cassidy served in the Kansas House of Representatives. Wasy back in the day, he was an actual teacher.

The board chair is Amy O. Cooke, Cooke was CEO of the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina, a post she took in 2020 after years as the executive vp of the Independence Institute of Colorado. She was also a senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum. In other words, an entire career spent in right-tilted advocacy groups. The John Locke Foundation is tied to the Bradley Foundation, ALEC, State Policy Network, Franklin Foundation, Art Pope-- you get the idea. Her LinkedIn profile summarizes her years in Colorado fighting energy policies as "having more fun than the left allows." Her twitter handle is @TheRightAOC.

The executive director is David Hoyt. Hoyt has worked for the Heartland Institute, Young Americans for Liberty, America's Future Foundation, The Leadership Institute, and as volunteer manager for Ron Paul's 2008 campaign. He founded Liberty Development (a fundraising service for "liberty-minded" organizations) and the Cornerstone Classical Academy, a classical charter school, in Jacksonville, Florida. 

Yes, the board of SBAE runs the bipartisan gamut from A to B.

Hoyt is also the author of the Fox News piece, in which he talks about the genesis of SBAE as if he weren't the group's executive director. And the version of history that he employs will be familiar:

America's education establishment is slowly crumbling and the National School Boards Association’s public meltdown in 2021 paved the way. As the influence of NSBA wanes, a national network of reformist school board associations is rising to take its place, with a commitment to academic achievement and parents' rights.

Before its precipitous fall, NSBA worked behind the scenes for decades, quietly steering the nation's school boards to preach social justice, institutional racism, sexual nonconformity, and the "equitable" redistribution of students' grades, while remaining conspicuously unconcerned about student performance.

 The "meltdown: that he references is part of the standard narrative of culture panickists, that awful moment when NSBA asked the feds for some help with the out-of-control protestors at board meetings:

In NSBA's own words, criticizing critical race theory and mask mandates during school board meetings could be considered acts of domestic terrorism. As such, dissenting parents should be investigated under the Patriot Act by the FBI, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security.

Well, no, unless you consider threats of violence legitimate criticism of CRT.  Buit, says Hoyt, this led to a plummeting of NSBA membership and SBAE heard the call to help "reformist school board associations" in several states replace "the radical ideology of the NSBA network with an academically focused competitor" 

Yeah, we can kiss that bipartisan conversation among many viewpoints goodbye, I think.

So who's actually behind SBAE? And what are they actually doing? Hard to say. 

They have a Facebook page that was created on October 15, 2023, but seems to have awaken at the beginning of this year. They've got 12 followers (the list is "unavailable), and three posts. Minnesota Parents Alliance, another culture panic group, likes their posts. So did Jacob Immel, a teacher at a Christian school and local conservative politician in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin.

They have a LinkedIn page, listing their employees as 0-, but things are pretty quiet there.

On Twitter, we find that on October 24, 2023, Lance Christensen was asking

Want to lead a new organization that will help American schools be a model of academic excellence & student achievement? School Boards for Academic Excellence is looking for a bold leader to serve as the tip of the spear of a nationwide movement.

Plus a link to a now-defunct posting on Talent Market. Their twitter account (@SBAENetwork) has two posts to its name. Followers include Hoyt, Christensen, Terry Stoops (Personal account of "the most interesting man in the @GovRonDeSantis administration"), Minnesota Parents Alliance, and three other accounts. They are following 10 accounts, including Nicki Neily (Parents Defending Education), Matthew Nielsen (Education Freedom Institute), Dave Trabert (CEO Kansas Policy Institute), and  Carolinas Academic Leadership Network. 

There is a 990 file for an organization named School Boards for Academic Excellence that got their IRS non-profit wings in 2023; as a fresh group, there's no actual 990 form filed yet. However, to add to the mystery, the address is in Chicago-- Suite 1625 at 300 S. Riverside Plaza. That address is a large office building on Chicago's West Loop. That suite appears to be the home of both Bearing Tree, a company that manages "the operational complexities of running your mission-based organization," and Common Sense Reforms. Common Sense Reforms bills itself as a not-for-profit "dedicated to initiating conversations on the issues that matter the most to taxpayers, families and our communities" and has virtually no website beyond its plain front page4 (and no 990 page).

Bottom line-- School Boards for Academic Excellence is looking pretty dark, opaque, and mysterious at the moment. If Lance Christensen was an early hand in the launch--well, he's well-connected to a variety of right-tilted activist organizations that would be happy to astroturf themselves a tip-of-the-spear culture war movement to tear at public schools on another front. This direction of attack has been tried before, most notably in Florida, where Moms for Liberty future founders first whet their appetite for right-tilted disruption with an "alternative" school board group. 

That Florida attempt fizzled, and it would appear that SBAE is in the very early stages of its mission to disrupt, so it may be that they have a bunch of fizz in their future. But if they turn up in your neck of the woods wearing their special reasonable mask, do not be fooled. This is yet another bait-and-switch version of the right-wing, culture panic, let's burn down public education shtick we've seen elsewhere. 

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