Dark money orgs on the ground in school board races in Illinois
Numerous national extremist organizations supporting anti-public school, anti-equality policies and activity have been organizing in Illinois leading up to the April 4, 2023 local elections, including for school boards and libraries.
National organizations include:
- Moms for Liberty
- Leadership Institute
- Americans for Prosperity
- Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action for America
- Turning Point USA
- Moms for America
- Restoration PAC
- American Federation for Children
- Parents Defending Education
- 1776 PAC
These national organizations are partnering with state and local organizations to support candidates and slates, including:
- Awake IL
- Breakthrough Ideas
- Illinois Policy Institute
School districts where these organizations have been involved include Barrington D220, Oswego D308, Niles Township High School D219 (and feeder elementary school districts, including Fairview D72, and library board in Lincolnwood), Wheaton-Warrenvile CUSD200, Lyons Township High School D204, Downers Grove High School D99, New Trier Township High School D203, Westmont D201, Evanston D65 and others. (Awake IL alone has endorsed in 45 school districts.)
This isn't a comprehensive resource of what's happening, but we hope it's a place to start for voters and community members researching the candidates on their ballots.
Moms for Liberty
Moms for Liberty is a Florida-based organization which lists four chapters in Illinois on their website.
The Moms for Liberty Lake County chair, Marsha McClary, is actively involved in promoting a slate in Barrington D220 and has contributed to their PAC.
The Moms for Liberty Cook County chair, Helen Levinson, who also leads a local organization Niles Township Accountability Council (NTAC) that was renamed Awake IL Niles Township in the summer of 2022, is supporting at least two candidates in Niles Township HSD219 and actively involved in the elementary school district Fairview D72 race. NTAC won seats on the D72 board in 2021. Levinson is also vice president for Awake IL.
The Moms for Liberty DuPage County chair, Shannon Adcock, is the founder and leader of Awake IL, and a failed school board candidate in Indian Prairie D204 in the 2021 election cycle.
The Leadership Institute is the primary institution training conservatives to run for public office in the US (and beyond); many prominent US ultra-conservative political figures were trained by LI, including Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell. They have held two trainings in Illinois this election cycle, one in September 2022 in Des Plaines and another in January 2023 in Itasca, partnering with the local Moms for Liberty chapters and Awake Illinois on both. School board candidates from Westmont D201, Huntley D158, Lyons Township HSD 204, Oregon D220, Oswego D308, Wheaton-Warrenville CUSD 200 attended Leadership Institute trainings.
The Leadership Institute has close ties to and funding from the national Republican Party, the Koch brothers, the Heritage Institute and the State Policy Network.
Americans for Prosperity
A Koch-brothers-funded national lobbying and political organization, which, according to Influence Watch, “is among the top 25 largest political spenders in the United States and is often the largest spending organization that is not a political action committee.“ Americans for Prosperity has also received funding from the DeVos family. Americans for Prosperity has an Illinois chapter, and their grassroots organizer has been scheduling events in Oswego in recent weeks (Village Grind, Cristina’s) and canvassing for candidates in Oswego D308.
Heritage Action/Heritage Foundation
The Heritage Foundation is a five-decade old, right-wing think tank, and Heritage Action for America is its organizing and political arm. Heritage has funding and ties to the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, the Bradley Foundation, and the Walton family.
Heritage Action was involved in training community members in Lincolnwood in the fall of 2022 to attempt to ban books at the Lincolnwood Public Library. That training was led by regional director for Heritage Action in the Chicago-area Matt Crouch, who has been meeting regularly with community members in Niles Township since last fall.
Breakthrough Ideas (see below) is featuring Matt Crouch as a speaker at an event in Glen Ellyn on March 14, 2022 about how to take control of school boards to advance an extremist agenda, the McCLean County GOP is featuring Matt Crouch at an event with another speaker from the Heritage Foundation in Normal on March 18, 2022 to discuss "the racial prejudice that comes from the application of critical race theory in K-12 schools."
Awake IL president and Moms for Liberty DuPage Co chair Shannon Adcock attended and spoke at an anti-transgender-rights Heritage Foundation conference in January 2023.
Turning Point USA
Turning Point USA is a far-right youth group that organizes on college campuses and also establishes high school chapters. They sponsored an event on Feb 25, 2022 in McHenry County partnering with another national organization Moms for America (see below).
Lyons Township High School District 204 has a chapter of Turning Point USA that the district does not officially recognize.
Moms for America
Moms for America is connected to Mike Flynn and organized rallies for the insurrectionist January 6th attack on the US Capitol, and runs the National School Boards Leadership Council, which opposes services for English-language learners and promotes exclusion of students with disabilities. The Moms for America candidate questionnaire asks about comprehensive sex education; diversity, equity and inclusion programs; social-emotional learning; Title IX protections and support for transgender students. A Donald Trump-connected organization America First Works has funded Moms for America in recent years.
Moms for America Action has endorsed 13 candidates in Illinois for school board along with numerous others for library and village boards. Many of the endorsed candidates are also endorsed by a local organization We the Parents of Illinois based in Lockport, Homer Glen and Crest Hill.
FAIR (Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism) is a national group which opposes all types of anti-racism initiatives in education and other policy areas and have been especially active in "anti-CRT" demagoguery. They are also explicitly transphobic. Founding directors include Megyn Kelly (formerly of Fox News) and Christopher Rufo. (Rufo is not currently on the board.) FAIR says they oppose book banning, but, in fact, their website says: "We believe that parents/guardians have the right to advocate for or against particular books being included in school and classroom libraries and curricula," in other words they support efforts to ban books in schools and libraries.
FAIR's Illinois chapter coordinator Carrie Mendoza is the wife of Myles Mendoza, former president of Empower Illinois, the group that led the effort to create Illinois' voucher program (and currently benefits from administering the program as a voucher middleman org that skims millions off the top of the voucher funds they distribute). The former Illinois lobbyist for Betsy DeVos' American Federation for Children (see below) Nate Hoffman is a member of FAIR's board of advisors.
They have attacked Evanston D65 on issues of race and gender as well as New Trier D203. They attended Evanston High School D202 events in the fall of 2021 to disrupt affinity group activities for parents.
A current Evanston D65 candidate is described on the FAIR website as a chapter leader in July 2022 appearing at an event with the DeVos lobbyist Hoffman. She is also featured in a FAIR video linked to their website. Her position was also reported in the Pioneer Press in October 2022, but she said recently she is no longer involved with the group.
According to FAIR’s website, they were hiring consultants in the fall of 2021 at $250/hour. They are not, however, a registered non-profit, but a project of a donor advised fund, United Charitable, and there is no public information about how they are structured or funded beyond that.
Restoration PAC is part of a group of political and policy organizations funded by billionaire Dick Uihlein, one of the largest funders of Republican candidates and associated causes in the US currently. The PAC funded numerous Republican candidates and far-right organizations in the 2022 election cycle, including a $13,000 contribution to Awake IL to campaign against the Worker Rights Amendment on the ballot in Illinois.
American Federation for Children
American Federation for Children (AFC), founded and funded by Betsy DeVos to promote anti-public school legislation and policies, created an Illinois-based PAC in March 2022, Illinois Federation for Children, which spent more than $700K on Illinois elections in 2022. That PAC is primarily funded by the American Federation for Children Action Fund, which is primarily funded by Betsy DeVos and her husband, and also by Jim Walton.
The chair of the PAC, Nate Hoffman, served as a lobbyist for AFC in Springfield from February 2022 through January 2023, to lobby for the extension and expansion of Illinois’ K-12 school voucher program. He previously lobbied for Empower Illinois (See the entry on FAIR above for more about Empower.) Currently, he is registered as a lobbyist for Jeb Bush's ExcelinEd.
In summer 2022, Awake IL held a fundraising event featuring Corey DeAngelis the most prominent AFC spokesperson as a keynote speaker, also speaking on the panel was Paul Vallas, current Chicago mayoral candidate; and a leader from the rightwing, anti-LGBTQ+ national parent group Parents Defending Education, Nicole Neily (see below).
On March 23, 2023, Illinois Federation for Children PAC spent $59,000 to support Paul Vallas for Mayor of Chicago. IFC PAC chair Nate Hoffman is a frequent attendee of Vallas campaign events. You can read more details on the DeVos-Vallas connection here.
Parents Defending Education
Parents Defending Education is a Virginia-based national organization pushing anti-civil rights efforts in school districts around the country. Their president, Nicole Neily, also spoke at the June 2022 Awake event. Neily has worked closely with the Leadership Institute. Parents Defending Education is funded by the Koch family and dark money connected to rightwing legal activist Leonard Leo.
1776 Project PAC
The 1776 Project PAC is a New York-based PAC that is also primarily funded by Dick Uihlein via his Restoration PAC. Criteria for endorsement include whether a candidates opposes Critical Race Theory; diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; social-emotional learning and Critical Gender Theory.
The 1776 Project PAC has endorsed 18 school board candidates in Illinois including slates in Oswego D308 and Barrington D220. (See list here; original here.)
Awake IL, formed in June 2021, is based in Naperville but works with parents and community members in other suburban Chicago communities. Their initial focus on anti-covid mitigation strategies broadened to opposing diversity, equity, and inclusion programming, age-appropriate sex ed, and supporting book bans and school privatization, but their focus is anti-LGBTQ+ equality, promoting transphobic and homophobic activity online and off.
Awake says they are supporting 75+ school board candidates in Illinois, and, as of March 31, 2023, posted a list of 124 (Spreadsheet here.) Awake Oswego and Awake Niles Township have endorsements listed on their websites. The Awake Illinois PAC, chaired by Shannon Adcock, had $100 cash on hand as of March 11, 2023.
Breakthrough Ideas is an Illinois-based organization run by former state representative Jeanne Ives. Ives has endorsed a slate of candidates running in Wheaton-Warrenville D200, due to their pro-book-ban and anti-transgender student positions. The slate’s PAC has received more than $24,000 in donations including from Ives’ supporters. The majority of money comes from donors tied to Christian private schools, several of which are major recipients of money from the Illinois K-12 school voucher program.
Wirepoints is run by Ted Dabrowski, the former vice-president of Illinois Policy Institute. Dabrowski also serves on the board of New Trier Neighbors, a community organization promoting book banning, and opposing diversity, equity and inclusion programming and support for gender non-conforming students in both New Trier Township HSD 203 and in nearby Evanston. Dabrowski spoke at the Awake-Leadership Institute school board candidate training in January 2023 and appeared in a video being interviewed by Shannon Adcock in October 2022.
New Trier Neighbors was formed as Parents of New Trier and instigated one of the earliest attacks on DEI education in Illinois, in 2017, a campaign which involved Parents of New Trier, Dabrowksi’s Wirepoints, the Illinois Policy Institute and Dan Proft, and played a role in the 2017 school board elections in D203. The film by a New Trier parent New Trier: Tip of the Spear documents these events in detail.
Illinois Policy Institute
The Illinois Policy Institute (IPI) is an Illinois-based think tank funded by Koch, Bradley and Uihlein money. IPI is the affiliate of the national State Policy Network, and is known for its role in the anti-union Janus decision. IPI is a major supporter of Illinois’ voucher program. IPI featured Awake IL board member Steve Lucie on their website until summer 2021 when they were tagged in a discussion of Lucie’s violent rhetoric.
Illinois Policy PAC reported spending $48,000 to oppose Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson in March 2023. Most of the PACs funding is from a major donor to Paul Vallas, Arthur Margulis, and John Tillman, who runs IPI and a network of associated shell non-profits.