“I’ve never seen anything like this in all these years,” said Wellesley School Superintendent David Lussier, who settled the lawsuit with the organization in February. “They try to go after superintendents and fire people.”
Parents Defending Education did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but supporters say the group offers an important counterbalance to an education system steeped in liberal values.
“I think it’s good because education has been very one-sided for a long time,” said Jennifer McWilliams, a consultant with Parents Defending Education, who runs her own advocacy group in Indiana. “Schools have decided that they need to teach children morals, values, attitudes and worldviews through academics.”
The two-year-old Washington, DC-based organization is urging parents across the country to report incidents where they believe schools are racially segregating students or inappropriately teaching students about gender or gender roles. The group explains on its website that education must be grounded in “science and fact,” saying ethnic studies “divide children into groups of oppressors and ‘oppressed'” while teaching white students “guilt and shame.”
And the organization has a sizeable, well-connected staff to further its agenda. The Parents Defending Education website lists 13 employees, including Nicole Neily, former president of an organization linked to the Koch brothers called Speech First, and Aimee Viana, a former Trump administration commissioner.
Schools have long been battlegrounds in the nation’s culture wars, but experts say Parents Defending Education marks something new: an attempt to nationalize the agenda. The group has promoted conservative values across the country, recruiting local groups with names like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education.
“Thanks to social media, we’re seeing increased coordination, national coordination, between groups of all political and partisan persuasions,” said Meira Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “More than the left, the right seems to have mastered techniques for developing language that can then be replicated in legislation or policy in different local and state governments.”
For Massachusetts educators being criticized by Parents Defending Education, it suddenly feels like the group is everywhere. The group criticized Brookline schools in April after teachers staged a walkout to protest a measure in Florida that opponents called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
In June, the organization condemned Milton for teaching a lesson about the country’s first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, and the meaning of the letters LGBTQ.
“Who the hell wants to get into this profession anymore when this is the type of community we are serving and the type of pressures we are going to experience,” said Kyle Gekopi, president of the Wellesley Educators Association. “It’s really forced a lot of people to question their decisions.
Most recently, on Oct. 4, Parents Defending Education filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Newton North High School.
The group alleged to the United States Department of Education that the school violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protections Clause. Both are designed to protect people from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities that receive federal funding. Those protections extend to white students, they say.
Parents Defending Education alleges that the school’s student-led production, Lost and Found: Stories of People of Color by People of Color, restricted auditions to only students of color. The show, which organizers described as “a no-cut, cabaret-style show for black students,” was intended to “provide a safe community space for black students to express themselves through the performing arts.”
But Newton Public Schools issued a statement emphasizing that “no one will be turned away or barred from participating” in the play.
Educators well beyond Newton watch nervously as the case unfolds. Brian Fitzgerald, president of the Plymouth County Education Association, said Parents Defending Education reminded him of activists over the past few decades who have campaigned to restrict sex education, making it difficult to teach students about health.
“My concern is that they will interfere with a student’s ability to learn,” Fitzgerald said.
Parents Defending Education filed a federal lawsuit against Wellesley in October 2021, alleging that racial-based student support groups harmed students by “making them very racially aware during their interactions with their teachers and classmates.”
The organization is suing on behalf of five anonymous Wellesley parents, alleging that Wellesley discriminated when it hosted a talk for college students in 2021 following the Atlanta spa mass shooting that killed eight people, including six Asian-American women.
An email invitation from a Wellesley teacher said: “This is a safe place for our Asian/Asian American and Black students, *not* students who identify only as white. If you identify as white and need help processing recent events, please know that I am here for you as much as I am for your advisors. If you want to know more about why this is not for white students, please ask me!”
Superintendent Lussier said the teacher had good intentions but used poor choice of words and was “too specific” in her explanation to the group. He said all races are welcome at the event, noting that non-Asians also attended.
The superintendent said he was never contacted directly by anyone on the Parents Defending Education team but said he received “obscene” and “horrible” emails from people across the country associated with the group .
“They pretend to be that grassroots organization, but they’re anything but — they’re a highly funded, highly networked organization that aims to intimidate,” Lussier said.
Consovoy McCarthy, a law firm that worked for Trump to keep his tax returns private, represented Parents Defending Education.
The group and Wellesley Public Schools settled in February. The organization agreed to drop its lawsuit, while county officials said they would make it clearer that school-sponsored meetings are open to students of all races.
“We continue to do the things that we have done, but we make sure that our words, organization and practice are carefully constructed so that we don’t give a group like this a foothold to challenge us,” Lussier said.
Parents Defending Education invites people to anonymously submit course material that affects them. Anyone can file an “incident report” against schools or governments. The group’s website contains slides from teacher training sessions, screenshots of assignments, and emails in which the group claims to propose “activism in the classroom.”
Needham Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst said he believes a concerned parent forwarded slides from a Needham High School biology class to Parents Defending Education after a class on genetics spoke about transgender people.
The group focused on a flaw in the presentation to argue that teachers are “inventing science to address political causes related to LGBTQ rights.” The slides from Needham High state: “Intersex people make up just under 2% of the population – a comparable percentage to people born with red hair.”
Gutekanst said the intersex percentage given was actually inaccurate and taken out of context. However, he said he stands by the lessons and is transparent to families about the curriculum.
“I have told Parents Defending Education that we are a work in progress and are constantly reviewing our lessons to ensure they reflect current science,” Gutekanst said. “I haven’t heard from them after sending that reply.”
Of 30 districts and schools contacted about this story, 25 declined to comment. On September 28, a member of Newton’s school board said in an email that he did not want to address the issue because the district could be one of them Potential Targets of Parents Defending Education. A week later, the group filed a federal civil rights complaint against Newton North High School.
Noah Labelle, a senior at Algonquin Regional High in Northborough, said he was frustrated with Parents Defending Education pretending to speak on behalf of students.
“Students need to be heard in these discussions about gender, sexual orientation and racism,” said Labelle, founder of the Massachusetts Youth Activism Collective, which works to empower students in policy making. “If they can’t see that students need to have a say in these kinds of discussions, they really are defeating the whole purpose of the education system.”
Jusneel Mahal is a journalism masters student at Boston University, advised by Professor Brooke Williams.