Parents Defending Education is a right-wing nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting against critical race theory and progressive ideology in public schools. While there is scant evidence for a so-called progressive takeover of American public education, PDE has dedicated millions of dollars to filing discrimination complaints with the Department of Education, submitting freedom of information act requests, and waging media campaigns against public school boards. Parents Defending Education works with Parents Defending Education Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit.
Nicole Neily is listed on Parents Defending Education’s nonprofit filings as president and is described in media reports as the group’s founder. Neily is a “Koch network alum” and formerly the president of Speech First, a free speech group that operated on college campuses with a board stocked with Koch-connected individuals. Prior to Speech First, Neily worked at the Independent Women’s Forum and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which the Columbia Journalism Review named “the Koch’s leading media investment to date.”
Kenneth Marcus, listed on PDE’s nonprofit forms as the organization’s treasurer, is a right-wing attorney and activist who served as assistant secretary for civil rights at the US Department of Education in the Trump administration. His confirmation was opposed by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights due to his anti-civil rights history, including his opposition to affirmative action, equal opportunity initiatives, and the rights of immigrant children. He stepped down from his position at the Department of Education after two separate complaints claimed Marcus had abused his authority and used his position to advance his personal and political agenda.
Edward Blum, PDE’s board secretary, is also president of Students for Fair Admissions, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a contributor to The Federalist Society. Blum is best known for his legal advocacy against affirmative action; he has sued University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Harvard, the US Department of Education, and University of Texas-Austin over race-based admissions and laws. The suit against UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard is currently before the Supreme Court, with Blum’s lawyers arguing that both schools are violating Title 6 of the Voting Rights Act and Chapel Hill specifically is violating the 14 Amendment. Lower courts have sided with the universities for their interest in promoting diversity on campus.
Parents Defending Education has campaigned across the country to advocate against school policies that they claim exclude certain individuals based on race. In multiple cases, the organization has filed complaints against Black, Asian, Latino, and other affinity groups that support people of color, claiming that white students are the target of discrimination in public schools.
Parents Defending Education staunchly advocates for school choice, bolstered by their argument that school choice and private school enrollment are solutions to perceived problems with public schools. In January 2023, PDE signed on to a letter encouraging the Florida Legislature to pass a new education savings account bill. Other signatories included former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, US Rep. Byron Donalds, Moms for Liberty, and the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, among others. The proposed legislation would allow all students to access public education funds that could be used to subsidize private school. This would be a dramatic expansion of the current school voucher program originally signed into law by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and has strict income requirements and guardrails dictating how the funds are spent.
While the state has not provided a fiscal estimate for the legislation, the Florida Policy Institute has estimated that the expansion of education savings accounts, including the elimination of income requirements, would cost the state $4 billion in the initial year of implementation. This does not include increased costs for public schools that would see revenue cut by this proposal.
Parents Defending Education has dedicated a section of their website to promoting private schools, calling them “a key component of civil society.” A post on the site describing the history of private schools” claims the American education system started with private, locally-controlled religious schools. According to PDE, this model grew into “universal free public schools, heavy on Protestant biblical moral instruction.
In 2021, Parents Defending Education’s first year of operation, the organization raised just over $3.1 million. Despite describing itself as a “grassroots” nonprofit, PDE’s 2021 tax form revealed that only $77,000 was raised from membership dues, while $3.1 million was raised by nonmember donors. The disclosure also revealed that PDE paid conservative kingpin Leonard Leo’s consulting firm CRC Advisors over $100,000.
Donors Trust, the “dark-money ATM of the right,” contributed $20,250 directly to Parents Defending Education in 2021. They gave an additional $200,000 to the Project on Fair Representation and earmarked those funds for PDE. The Project on Fair Representation in total contributed just under $1.4 million to PDE in 2021, including the earmarked funds from Donors Trust.
After working for years to move federal courts to the right, Leonard Leo has built a sprawling network of nonprofit organizations dedicated to reshaping American society to reflect his conservative values. This includes pushing back against what he sees as the “liberal dominance” of “education.” Leo’s organizations are closely connected to Donors Trust, and he has both directed millions in donations to the nonprofit and accepted millions in donations through separate organizations under his control. Two Leo-controlled nonprofits – Marble Freedom Trust and The 85 Fund – account for the bulk of the grants received and distributed to Donors Trust. . In 2020, The 85 Fund received more than $20 million from Donors Trust — and in 2021, The 85 Fund contributed over $71 million to Donors Trust. In 2020, Marble Freedom Trust contributed $41.1 to Donors Trust.
Nicole Neily, PDE’s president and founder, has close connections with the Koch network, with some media outlets referring to her as a “Koch network alum.” Before founding PDE, Neily worked with Speech First, a group dedicated to promoting free speech on college campuses. The group included a cadre of Koch-affiliated individuals on the board including “a former head of a Koch-backed trust and two conservative attorneys from Koch-funded programs.” Neily also served as executive director and senior fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum, which directly received donations from the Kochs and Donors Trust. Prior to her work with the Women’s Forum, Neily was director of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which Columbia Journalism Review called “the Kochs’ leading media investment to date.” Donors Trust was by far the organization’s largest funder, accounting for 95% of contributions.