EXCLUSIVE: Liberal foundations funnel millions to red states for woke schools programs; parents demand change

Parents groups team up after learning that Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and others were bankrolling race-based initiatives in public schools

A coalition of more than two dozen parents organizations are requesting that five foundations, including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, stop funding race-based and social and emotional learning programs in public schools.

"We are constantly being told that there's not enough money in our school system," Parents Defending Education President Nicole Neily told Fox News. "Yet we find out that not only are all these things taking place in our school system with our tax dollars … but there's also a lot of outside money coming in."

A Parents Defending Education investigation last month found that from 2017 through 2021, 72 school districts received more than $200 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the Wallace Foundation; the Windward Fund; and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Fox News first reported.

"The funding was earmarked for a variety of social programs, primarily focused on equity and race," Neily said.

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A Wallace spokesperson pointed to evidence suggesting that social and emotional learning helps promote academic achievement, while Kellogg and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations representatives told Fox News inclusion helps students succeed and pointed to learning gaps between racial and income groups. A spokesperson for the Windward Fund, which has ties to the left-wing dark money group Arabella Advisors, said none of the grant funding went to curriculum initiatives and instead bankrolled an emergency food access program during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social and emotional learning considers how knowledge and other attributes factors into student's identities and emotional management.

The 26 parents organizations, led by Parents Defending Education, sent letters first shared with Fox News to the five foundations, arguing that providing well-intended donations for equity and race-based programs are ultimately harmful to students.

"Our organizations find it deeply troubling that grants … are being used to advance these patronizing policies – particularly at a time when students are working to remediate the learning loss incurred during Covid-related school closures," the letters state. "Students deserve to be treated as individuals and not members of identity groups."

Tiffany Justice, the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, one of the letters’ signatories, said parents want to see emphasis on merit and academics, not social initiatives.

"We as parents would like to see the focus put back on academic achievement, where our children are being given practicable skills," she told Fox News. "We believe that this money that's going into the school districts from these philanthropic organizations could be put to better use."

One mother and former teacher moved to Palm Beach County specifically for its highly rated school system. But she withdrew her kids and moved them to a Christian school after she felt Critical Race Theory and social and emotional learning were "seeping" into the classroom.

"I'm just uncomfortable with a lot of the topics being taught," Kristen Stevenson told Fox News.

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Parents Defending Education argues that students' academics suffer when race-based issues are a focus in the classroom.

Parents Defending Education argues that students' academics suffer when race-based issues are a focus in the classroom. (AP Photo/Matt York)

"Where have the core academics gone, and how can we get that back?" the mother of four continued. "Why does their emotional regulation need to be taught from step one to step 10? Do they assume that we're not doing that as a family?"

The School District of Palm Beach County received $7 million from the foundations, making it one of the largest grant recipients, according to Parents Defending Education’s analysis, which relied on public records like tax filings. Wallace sent the bulk of that and earmarked the funding for a social and emotional learning initiative.

"The District is committed to educational excellence in our A-rated school system," the district said in an emailed statement, denying that its schools had ever taught Critical Race Theory. "We diligently adhere to the core curriculum as specified by the Florida Department of Education."

"We also work with our students on teamwork, persistence, goal-setting and self-control as there is a growing body of research that indicates these skills are important contributing factors to success in school and later in life," the district continued. "In an effort to accomplish this, the District is shifting to Life Skills consistent with the State."

The Wallace spokesperson pointed to research on social and emotional learning from the RAND Corporation and the Aspen Institute, both published in 2017.

"Wallace’s support for six school districts and their community partners to offer social and emotional learning, in ways each community chooses, is based on evidence that skills like setting goals and attaining them and approaching challenges with optimism benefits students academically," he said. "Acquiring these and other life skills aids students’ academic success, and surveys show parents widely support their development."

But Neily said such teaching strategies are a sort of Trojan horse.

Foundations backing race-based and equity initiatives in the classroom argue that evidence has shown social and emotional learning can help students succeed.

Foundations backing race-based and equity initiatives in the classroom argue that evidence has shown social and emotional learning can help students succeed. ( Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

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"A number of these programs — equity, social emotional learning — are actually being used to push a lot of identity based programing," she said.

The letters the coalition sent underscores her argument. The note to Wallace, for example, highlights language in one of its reports that suggests children play a role in a "racist and unjust society."

The letter called that notion "concerning" and stated that "it imparts to schoolchildren the sad and limiting belief that hard work and perseverance may never be sufficient for achieving success."

Neily also noted that any class time "being diverted from reading, writing and arithmetic and being spent on social emotional learning programs … is time that's not being spent in making up learning loss."

And Justice, herself a mother of four school-aged children, told Fox News: "The biggest concern for moms and dads on the ground is the fact that the money wasn't focused on promoting and improving academic achievement."

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spokesperson Josie McSpadden said her organization "has been focusing on improving academic outcomes for students" since it began investing in education more than 20 years ago.

That’s "included investing in approaches to ensure all students feel a sense of belonging in the classroom so they can reach their full potential," she told Fox News. McSpadden also said the foundation will work to improve math outcomes, noting that the pandemic "has exacerbated existing academic gaps and put millions of students off-track."

A Kellogg spokesperson said "investments in racial equity and racial healing, comprehensive community engagement and local, diverse and intergenerational leadership are essential to propelling children to achieve success in the classroom and beyond."

"However, significant challenges and barriers disproportionately affect children of color, children from low-income families and English language learners," the spokesperson continued, noting that pandemic learning widened existing achievement gaps.

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Neily and Stevenson, meanwhile, said much of the content was being introduced to students too young to understand the concepts.

"When you have a six-year-old, a seven-year-old in first grade, second grade being taught about systems of oppression, that's a really complex theory," Neily told Fox News. "It's something that these children can't wrap their heads around."

"In many cases, these kids are still trying to learn their ABCs and now they’re being told that they must integrate pronouns into things," she continued. "Well, they don't know what a pronoun is."

Additionally, political partisanship didn’t seem to play a role in how the money was allocated.

"This is not just happening in big cities. It's not just happening in the blue states," Neily told Fox News. "It's happening in red states. It's happening in small cities."

Parents Defending Education in November sent letters to Republican governors of several states with school districts that received funding.

"We hope that governors and other elected officials who are focused on education, who are focused on academic outcomes out of their schools, take a hard look about how their schools are receiving money from outside organizations," Justice said.

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Stevenson, meanwhile, worries that social and race-based focuses in education is harming student achievement.

"The public school system is there to provide an academic foundation for our students," she told Fox News. "They're severely lacking and they're failing because the money is being spent on emotional training, things like this."

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative declined to comment.

To see the full interview with Justice, Neily and Stevenson, click here

Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video