Who Is Behind the “Toxic Schools” Attack Website? Backgrounder on the So-Called Independent Women’s Voice

Who Is Behind the “Toxic Schools” Attack Website? Backgrounder on the So-Called Independent Women’s Voice

By Lisa Graves, Alyssa Bowen, and Evan Vorpahl with research from the True North Research Team

On October 13, 2021, a Washington, DC-based non-profit group called the “Independent Women’s Voice” (IWV) registered a website called toxicschools.org to amplify attacks on Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia. This is a classic example of a dark-money funded front group creating a pop-up website to attack a political candidate on the eve of an election. 

IWV launched the site on October 21 via FOX in a plug by Carrie Lukas, the Executive Director of IWV’s affiliated “Independent” Women’s Forum (IWF). She described herself as a parent against McAuliffe because he reiterated what Virginia’s Constitution expressly provides, which is that school boards select textbooks—not individual parents. Virginia has more than 1.3 million public school students, and the results would be thoroughly chaotic if a million parents were able to dictate their personal or idiosyncratic choices for books in schools. 

McAuliffe’s opponent, Glenn Youngkin, has seized on this controversy as the centerpoint of his campaign to become governor. It is no coincidence that IWV is amplifying Youngkin. IWF/V are pay-to-play groups that use their “independent” branding to aid partisan right-wing politicians and the legislative wish lists of corporations. IWF is a 501(c)(3) and IWV is a 501(c)(4).

“Branded as Neutral” but Not Actually. IWF/V’s leader Heather Higgins—an heir to the Vicks VapoRub fortune—has told funders: “We have worked hard to create a branded organization… that does not carry the partisan baggage,” adding “being branded as neutral but actually having the people who know, know that you’re actually conservative puts us in a unique position.”

Higgins Orchestrates IWV’s Last Minute Spending to Aid Extreme Candidates

This tactic is typical for IWV, which under Higgins has a track record of trying to sway the outcome of elections or appointments through a surge of last-minute spending, often backing right-wing men who have made outrageously misogynistic statements, such as these examples:

  • Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin claimed rape victims can’t get pregnant because “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin made this statement on August 19. On November 1, IWV spent $67,242.43 to aid Akin with robo-calls. Akin lost.
  • Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock asserted that when a woman is made pregnant as a result of rape, she carries a “gift from God,” and that such a pregnancy “is something that God intended to happen.” Two weeks later, IWV spent $176,991 on a “Romney wants Mourdock” ad.
  • Donald Trump made numerous misogynistic statements, including boasting about “inspecting” beauty contestants’ dressing rooms (five former Miss Teen USA contestants said he walked in on them while they were undressed) and also saying Ivanka Trump was “hot” and he would ‘date her if she wasn’t my daughter.” Despite grotesque statements like these and numerous sexual assault allegations against Trump (which he denied), IWF/V specifically targeted women in Wisconsin in the two weeks before the 2016 election, and then took credit for Trump’s win and that but-for their efforts “Trump would have received an estimated 215,840 fewer votes in Wisconsin…”

Such seemingly unprincipled shilling might be surprising for a group that has the word “independent” in its brand name, but it should come as no surprise from a group founded to defend Clarence Thomas in the face of Anita Hill’s testimony that he made sexually explicit and repulsive overtures toward her when he was her boss (which he denied). This month, IWF/V celebrated the 30th anniversary of Thomas’ Supreme Court tenure and used the occasion to call Hill a liar, although her testimony was corroborated by contemporaneous accounts and other women who said they were treated similarly by Thomas.

Yet, despite this history, IWV wants parents to think it is on their side against sexual predators as the organization amplifies controversies at school boards about library books and more.

With the toxicschools.org site, IWV is presenting a face that is designed to look like a parent advocacy site although its purpose appears political in attacking McAuliffe to the benefit of Youngkin—a Trump-backed candidate who has trafficked in election fraud innuendo that Virginia’s voting machines need to be audited, even though they already routinely are.

Who is Funding IWV’s Attacks on McAuliffe and its Ads? It’s Dark Money

IWF/V have received millions from dark money operations. Between 2011 and 2019, IWF received $3.4M from Donors Trust, called the “dark money ATM” of the right. In 2012, it received $1.6M from Donors Capital Fund. IWF/V received huge sums from groups in right-wing operative Leonard Leo’s dark money network that packs federal and state courts with zealots to overturn Roe v. Wade. IWV has received at least $4M from the Leo-led Freedom and Opportunity Fund, and IWF received $300K from the Judicial Education Project in 2018. 

IWV never disclosed who paid for its robo-calls to aid the anti-choice, war-on-women GOP Senate candidates, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, or who funded IWF/V’s last-minute effort to help Trump win Wisconsin in 2016. Due to the discredited Citizens United decision, which should be called Billionaires United, they do not have to disclose who underwrites such spending, but they should still be asked who is bankrolling their attacks.

Known Pay-to-Play Activities. IWF has engaged in pay-to-play activity, such as receiving funding from Juul, a major vaping company. IWF opposed regulations and tried to dissuade parents from being concerned about vaping by teens without disclosing its Juul funding. Its failure to disclose funding from commercial interests without admitting such ties when writing about issues that advance the corporate bottom-line necessitated a correction in USA Today

Right-wing Billionaires like Koch, Huge Trade Groups, and Big Corporations. IWF/V has long ties to the fortune of oil billionaire Charles Koch, and IWF has received funding from Koch-controlled groups. IWF/V was even previously led by a former top lobbyist for Koch Industries and was co-housed with Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and its predecessor. Other funders revealed through IWF/V’s annual gala include: PhRMA, Philip Morris International, Marathon Petroleum, the Personal Care Products Council, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Distilled Spirits Council, and the Ariel Corporation. IWF has also been a long-time recipient of grants made by the right-wing Bradley Foundation, receiving at least $789K since 2014, plus funding via Betsy DeVos. However, in 2010, almost all (88%) of the known funders of the Independent Women’s Voice were wealthy men, like millionaire Foster Friess.

IWF/V Has Taken Extreme Positions in Response to the Deadly Pandemic

Notably, the initial version of IWV’s site, preserved by the internet archive, shows that it was modeled on another IWV effort to sow fear and seemingly engage in racist dog whistling through its attacks on immigrants and Covid-19 under the guise of “safe borders”—even though IWF/V has repeatedly attacked public health regulations designed to protect children and adults from the spread of Covid-19. Here are some examples of how IWF/V has attacked public health measures designed to stem the spread of covid-19 among school-aged kids and adults:

  • IWF/V was an early voice that opposed shelter-in-place protections last spring, despite public health guidance to limit the spread of the deadly, infectious disease. One of its leaders even called Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer a “little tyrant.” (Whitmer was later the subject of an assassination plot by people calling her a tyrant.) 
  • As early as April of 2020, IWF was pushing to reopen the economy during the pandemic. Since then, at least 750,000 people in the U.S. have died from the virus. 
  • IWF also posted misleading charts downplaying death rates from COVID-19, which were flagged and removed by Facebook
  • IWF urged, during this pandemic, that regulations on school cleaning be limited
  • Some IWF fellows have even endorsed some of Trump’s most dangerous ideas, like taking hydroxychloroquine (despite CDC guidance), along with urging the use of Ivermectin, a drug designed for livestock to treat parasites (despite CDC guidelines).
  • The Washington Post reported this month that IWF is helping to fuel opposition to public health rules requiring masks in schools, using strongly disputed rationales.

IWF has Echoed Youngkin’s Political Campaign in its Attacks on McAuliffe

IWF/V appears focused on influencing Virginia politics with numerous attacks on McAuliffe, e.g.: 

  • IWV began running Facebook ads on October 22 and 23 directing audiences toward ToxicSchools.org, according to Facebook Ad Library. The ads attack McAuliffe just in time for the election and feature a 2016 Washington Post headline asserting that McAuliffe “vetoe[d] a bill permitting parents to block sexually explicit books in school.” The content of that article—that IWV leaves out—explains that Virginia would have been the first state in the country to allow parents to censor books like Toni Morrison’s acclaimed book Beloved because of a single sexual scene without context of the educational value of the book. 
  • The Virginia GOP pushed the bill, based on one parent’s complaint about an AP assignment of Beloved, which won a Pulitzer Prize and other awards for aiding “understanding of racism and human diversity.” Under Virginia’s Constitution, school boards are tasked with choosing textbooks, not individual parents. McAuliffe noted school boards work “to ensure that our students are exposed to those appropriate literary and artistic works that will expand students’ horizons and enrich their learning.” 
  • Lukas parlayed her attack on the public school system into an attack on the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe echoing the GOP candidate in saying McAuliffe does not “think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” (Working for IWF, Lukas used her experience as a parent abroad to attack U.S. efforts to secure Paid Family and Medical Leave. She claimed European moms could not advance in their careers due to the availability of paid leave, ignoring the role male chauvinism can play in promotion.)
  • On IWF’s website, IWF staffer Ginny Gentles also echoed Youngkin in accusing McAuliffe of supporting “government control over parental rights” and asserted broadly that schools were encouraging children to hide their gender identity from their parents.
  • On her own podcast, IWF’s Julie Gunlock hosted Tina Ramirez, a GOP candidate running for Virginia’s 7th district, to discuss “turning Virginia around.” Gunlock claimed that Virginia’s Department of Education “is filled with true…political radicals who see it as their job really to radicalize kids,” a hyperbolic assertion. Ramirez claimed outlandishly that Virginia is “ground zero in our country right now for the radicalisation of our children” and attacked her political opponent, incumbent Rep. Abigail Spanberger,  with demonstrably false claims about receiving more union funding than anyone in Congress.

IWF/V Has Also Targeted Schools and School Boards on Racism Issues

The archived first version of toxicschools.org included an attack on “Critical Race Theory,” an elective course in some law schools. IWF/V has helped manufacture outrage about the alleged teaching in public schools of “Critical Race Theory,” which is not taught to school children. The right-wing has used the term this year to attack the honest teaching of history in American schools, as Trump’s GOP plays to the white supremacist racism animating some of its base. 

  • On her panel appearance at CPAC this year, IWF staffer Inez Stepman argued for a two-pronged right-wing attack on public education: one from within by infiltrating local school boards and one from without by pushing “school choice.” Stepman made the incendiary claim that public schools were “graduating rank after rank of woke cultural revolutionaries into every institution in the nation..[i]t starts in the education system and if we fix that a lot of things downstream will start to be better.”
  • IWF’s staffer Gunlock hosted Ian Prior, executive director of the dark money astroturf group targeting school boards in Virginia and across the country, which is called “Fight for Schools,” on her Bespoke Parenting Hour podcast. They discussed “fighting back against the woke mob” in Loudon County, Virginia. Gunlock also laughed about calling the group Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County “Chardonnay Antifa.” 
  • Gunlock also featured Nikki Neily on her podcast episode entitled “how activist teachers are using their classrooms, not to teach, but to push politics on young children.” Neily, who is also a former leader of IWF, now runs “Parents Defending Education” (PDE). IWF said it will give its 2021 “Resilience Award” to PDE’s Asra Nomani. 
  • IWF fellow Lisa Boothe hosted Christopher Rufo to her podcast where he argued that the government is “forcing” children to go to public schools and then to “undergo a deep ideological indoctrination,” which is an inflammatory assertion in our view.

Attacks on public school teaching curricula can serve many purposes, including activating right-wing voters, undermining teachers, softening the ground for school privatization, and dog whistling to Trump’s base. In our view, the critical race theory witch hunt is being used to try to swing the results in the Virginia elections in 2021, particularly the gubernatorial race.

Other Recent, Particularly Noteworthy Controversies.  IWF/V have repeatedly endorsed Trump’s lies about election fraud, even after his supporters’ failed coup on January 6. IWF/V also has ties to far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert, who IWF promoted on its site as a “champion woman,” and has also touted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as a “champion.”

It has also opposed the ERA, Title IX’s guarantees for equal opportunity in athletics. It opposes Equal Pay legislation to address the pay gap, and even recently filed a brief against the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s call for equal pay for women athletes. For years it attacked the Violence Against Women Act, and recently backed a right-wing version that would weaken that landmark legislation. It also backed Betsy DeVos’ much condemned efforts to change rules for addressing the epidemic of rape on campus, an epidemic IWF has repeatedly denied exists.

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