The Woodland Park-based effort to fundamentally alter public education in America is being funded by the zombie fortunes of long-dead conservative industrialists, according to a review of hundreds of tax documents associated with the members of Civics Alliance, the coalition which produced the American Birthright social studies program.
Despite the coalition’s connection to vast financial and political resources, Civics Alliance has yet to convince a single state to adopt the Birthright program as a statewide social studies standard. They have not been entirely without success, though, having implemented the program in one school district: in Woodland Park, Colorado, where a far-right school board majority was elected in late 2021 and has since embarked on an ambitious project to remake the district along the lines of conservative ideology.
The Civics Alliance coalition is composed of 60 organizations, including Awake Illinois – a hate group-adjacent parents’ rights organization – and Moms for Liberty, which the Southern Poverty Law Center recently identified as an anti-government extremist group. Most of the member organizations listed in the intro to the American Birthright document, though, are think tanks with prestigious-sounding names, lending a veneer of intellectual heft to the standards: the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, the Virginia Association of Scholars, and dozens more.
The coalition’s impressive roster, however, falls apart under close examination. Of the 60 member organizations, 39 of them – 65% – are affiliates of just two larger entities: the National Association of Scholars (NAS), and the State Policy Network (SPN). Affiliates of these two entities make up 78% of the organizations represented on the coalition’s steering committee, and nearly 90% of the coalition’s executive committee.
Neither group is new: the National Association of Scholars was founded in 1987, with the State Policy Network following shortly behind in 1992, and both have long track records of exerting significant influence over right-wing policymaking. More to the point of this investigation, though, both groups have long and well-established ties to specific major funders who rank among the top political spenders in the country. Understanding those funders, and the ways in which they have molded and shaped conservative politics for decades, finally allows us to shed some light on how — and why — these national organizations have descended on Woodland Park.
When the average citizen hears about “money in politics,” it’s reasonable to assume that the primary concern lies in the perception of elected officials granting political favors to major campaign donors. The true nature of the problem of money in politics, though, is orders of magnitude larger than the petty corruption of elected officials.
It is not Super PACs, 501(c)(4)s, or 527s occupying the top spot on the American food chain of political spending — and it’s certainly not elected officials. The apex predators in the political ecosystem are private family foundations.
“Foundations are weird creatures in American politics,” said legendary investigative journalist Jane Mayer, whose 2016 book Dark Money stands as the seminal tome on the topic, in a 2016 Rolling Stone interview. “They’re perpetual forces of unaccountable money and influence,” Mayer said. “And they’ve got tremendous private foundations on the right that have been built up purposely to try to change American politics, starting in about 1970.”
Following the money flowing out of foundations is difficult by design. These large foundations, which provide significant funding for groups like the Civics Alliance member organizations, are required to disclose the money they dole out, but a vast network of political action committees, 501(c)(3)s, and 501(c)(4)s exists to obscure where that money ends up — black boxes set up for the specific purpose of separating donors from donees. Adding to the difficulty is that groups like the National Association of Scholars and the State Policy Network are not required to disclose their donors, meaning that there is no way to trace funding all the way from a foundation to an end-user unless the foundation wants you to — in which cases they forgo the use of intermediaries. This level of opacity and unaccountability is why Judge Richard Posner once opined that these foundations are subject to fewer political controls than hereditary monarchies.
Despite this intentional systemic opacity, path-breaking work by journalists like Mayer and organizations like the Center for Media and Democracy has brought into clearer view the extent to which foundation funding fuels the American right’s political machinery.
In recent decades, billions of dollars of right-wing political spending have originated from the private foundations of just five families: the Kochs of Kansas, who made their fortune in oil and chemicals; the DeVoses of Michigan, whose money originated with the multi-level marketing cult Amway; the Searles of Illinois, who grew wealthy by somehow producing both Metamucil and the first oral contraceptive pill; the Bradleys of Wisconsin, who profited immensely as pioneers in industrial electronics, and the Scaifes of Pennsylvania, heirs of the banking and oil fortune of the gilded age Mellon family.
Together, the family foundations funded by these fortunes serve as the lifeblood of virtually every major conservative organization you have ever heard of: the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Freedom Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and many more. Their concerns are nothing as small as electing individuals; they’re guiding a movement. They fund think tanks to reverse-engineer rationales for conservative policies, and they fund advocacy groups to orchestrate coordinated legislative efforts across the country and in Washington, D.C. — and they spend an enormous amount of money doing it. According to a review of IRS documents, the eight primary foundations associated with these five family fortunes spent a combined $295.6 million in 2020 alone. By comparison, the Democratic National Committee spent a total of $179.3 million in 2020.
All five of these fortunes participated in funding Civics Alliance and the creation of American Birthright. All five, for instance, are financial supporters of the Claremont Institute – an SPN affiliated think tank and member of the Civics Alliance coalition which served as the intellectual nerve center for Donald Trump’s attempts to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. John Eastman, formerly of the University of Colorado, sits on Claremont’s faculty and board of directors even as proceedings are underway to disbar him for his role in the January 6th, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Connections of that nature abound throughout the coalition: overlapping donations to this think tank or that advocacy org, a general level of alignment on the grand ideological bent of the agenda. Despite the presence of all five of those major political fortunes in the funding streams leading to American Birthright, though, two of the associated family foundations appear to have played a guiding role far beyond the others: the Sarah Scaife Foundation, which has long been the principal funder of the National Association of Scholars, and the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation, the best-documented major contributor to the State Policy Network.
Sarah Mellon, who was born to enormous wealth as the daughter of Pittsburgh-based banking and oil magnate Richard Mellon before taking her husband Allan Scaife’s last name, was a patron of the arts. During her lifetime, she lavished funding on a number of museums and galleries, most notably the Carnegie Museum of Art, which opened a gallery in her name in 1974, after her death. Once her son got his hands on the family fortune, things took a different turn.
No one deserves as much credit — or blame, as the case may be — for the development of the modern conservative ecosystem as Richard Mellon Scaife, a fact which led the Washington Post to call him the “Funding Father of the Right” in a 1999 feature. Scaife’s importance, the Post noted, was “not based on his opposition or support for any individual politicians … His biggest contribution has been to help fund the creation of the modern conservative movement in America.”
For nearly 50 years, from when he inherited a fortune from his mother to his death in 2014, Richard Mellon Scaife built the infrastructure necessary to develop and promote generally unpopular conservative ideas to the masses. It was his largesse which built-up the Heritage Foundation into the right’s public policy clearinghouse, and it was his millions fueling much of the anti-Clinton hysteria of the 1990s. Scaife’s influence also extended into conservative media, where he was the owner of the right-wing American Spectator magazine, and the second-largest owner of Newsmax – a network which became one of the main mouthpieces for Donald Trump’s political movement in the years following Scaife’s death.
Scaife was also, for our purposes, the primary funder of the National Association of Scholars – a role his mother’s namesake foundation has maintained even after his passing. Since its founding in the late 80s, the association has dedicated itself to advocating against multiculturalism in education, taking positions along the way which led legal scholar Stanley Fish to deem the group “racist, sexist, and homophobic.”
Quantifying the exact dollar amount of Scaife’s support for the National Association of Scholars proves elusive. As the “Funding Father of the Right,” Scaife was remarkably adept at concealing and obscuring the path of his money, and the total sums which can be tracked between his foundations and NAS do not add up to the scale of funding one might expect from a group which doles out such large piles of cash.
Despite the difficulty adding up the totals, Scaife – via the Sarah Scaife Foundation – had been identified as early as 1996, in a report by People for the American Way, as the most significant donor to the National Association of Scholars. Similarly, the Center for Media and Democracy identified the Sarah Scaife Foundation as the “heaviest donor” to the National Association of Scholars between at least 1991 and 2005.
My own analysis of dozens of IRS Form 990s substantiated the claim that the Sarah Scaife Foundation has contributed more (under its own name, at least) to the National Association of Scholars than any of the other major family foundations. In recent years, NAS has received more than $7 million from the Sarah Scaife foundation, with its second largest known donor being the Bradley Foundation, who has contributed just shy of $3 million to the group. Because NAS is not required to disclose its funding, however, there is no way to either ascertain the true extent of Scaife-directed funding for the group, or to eliminate the possibility of there being a larger funder. Nevertheless, the fact that NAS has received more than twice as much funding from the Scaifes as from the Bradleys is a point in favor of the assertion that the Scaifes are the group’s largest funders: if they’ve already beaten-out the Bradleys, there aren’t many challengers left.
In the partnership between the National Association of Scholars and the State Policy Network, though – the partnership which created American Birthright and brought it to Woodland Park – the National Association of Scholars is the junior partner. Though the Civics Alliance coalition is convened under the umbrella of NAS, the largest share of its members comes from the State Policy Network. And where the State Policy Network goes, so too goes money from the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation.
Lynde and Harry Bradley wield more influence than they could possibly imagine — especially given that they have been dead for a combined 139 years. Despite the complications of mortality, the fortune the Milwaukee-based brothers accrued as forerunners in the field of industrial electronics continues to exert greater influence over American politics than perhaps any fortune other than the Kochs. The long arm of that influence bears their name: the Bradley Foundation.
Founded in 1942, the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation’s role in the firmament of American conservatism has only grown in the decades since the brothers shuffled off their respective mortal coils. Today, the foundation is a behemoth. According to a November 2013 report from One Wisconsin Now, the foundation contributed more than $500 million to right-wing causes between 2000 and 2013. My own review of Bradley Foundation IRS documents found that the foundation spent an additional $380 million on its political vision between 2014 and 2021, the last year of tax records available. So far in the 21st century, the Bradley Foundation has spent nearly $1 billion to prop-up and promote the right-wing ecosystem.
If that weren’t enough, the foundation ended 2021 with nearly $1.2 billion in assets. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, “the Bradley Foundation is as large as the three Koch family foundations combined, yet receives much less attention as a significant funder of the right.”
One of the main tools the Bradley Foundation uses to promote its agenda, from fanning the flames of Islamophobia and climate change denial to promoting the conservative education reform movement, is the State Policy Network. On paper, the Bradley Foundation has only given the State Policy Network $370,000. In reality – ascertained thanks to the efforts of the Center for Media and Democracy and a 2016 leak of 56,000 Bradley Foundation documents – the foundation has funneled more than $133 million to SPN and its affiliates.
The State Policy Network is a web of 150-plus member organizations, most of which masquerade as think tanks, and it’s one of the best-kept secrets on the right. Almost every state has an SPN outpost, and some have multiple. Colorado’s SPN affiliate, for example, is the Independence Institute (incidentally, the Independence Institute has also benefited from the generous contributions of the Sarah Scaife Foundation). The Independence Institutes’s Pam Benigno, the director of their Education Policy Center, has worked with groups like FEC United and FAIR to galvanize parents outraged over critical race theory and “gender ideology.” The Independence Institute’s president, Jon Caldara, is a weekly contributor for the Anschutz-owned Gazette.
The Washington State SPN affiliate, the Freedom Foundation, hosted a conference in Denver two weeks ago where controversial WPSD attorney Brad Miller was one of the speakers.
The network’s job is to translate the national organization’s agenda into local language and local policy to be passed by state legislatures. Member think tanks produce “studies” which start with the desired conclusions and work backwards. They produce white papers which serve no purpose other than applying a faint academish patina to the Facebook-infected will of their donors. And they know exactly what they’re doing.
While the State Policy Network claims that its member organizations are free to do as they wish – “fiercely independent,” in the words of long-time president Tracie Sharp – that’s not the case. Rather, the agenda pushed by the national organization and its state-level affiliates is heavily influenced by the organization’s donors. Sharp, as Jane Mayer reported in a 2013 New Yorker piece, “acknowledged privately…that the organization’s often anonymous donors frequently shape the agenda.”
“The grants are driven by donor intent,” Mayer’s piece quotes SPN’s president as saying, adding that Sharp said donors often “have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.”
In light of these revelations about the national coordination of the State Policy Network’s donor-driven agenda, the fact that SPN affiliates make up the bulk of the American Birthright coalition is unlikely to be a happy accident. Nor does it seem like a twist of fate that SPN affiliates alone comprise 55% of the American Birthright steering committee and 63% of the executive committee – figures which rise to 78% and 89% respectively when NAS affiliates are lumped-in. Rather, it’s most likely that the State Policy Network’s massive involvement in the creation of American Birthright was directed, as with so much of its agenda, from the top – and that Woodland Park’s ideological ferment is simply an opportunity it seized, rather than a problem it caused.
Needless to say, this is not the whole story. A full examination of the influence wielded by the Bradley and Scaife foundations – and the foundations of the DeVoses, Searles, Kochs, and others – would require volumes. Nor is the story of the influence wielded by the Bradley and Scaife foundations the full story of Woodland Park. The Bradley Foundation did not win the Woodland Park school board majority, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation did not hire Ken Witt.
Understanding how these titans of influence operate, however, does bring us to the first real answer to any of the major questions I posed at the beginning of this investigation. Why are national groups and right-wing billionaires so involved in the transformation of the Woodland Park School District? Because the Woodland Park School District is where the opportunity to transform all public education first presented itself. And now that they have found a foothold in the Woodland Park district, they’re proclaiming it to be a model for the nation.
Their plans do not end in Woodland Park — the Bradley and Scaife Foundations are not known for limiting the scale of their ambitions — but they started there, and they started there because the conditions were right.
In untangling the Gordian Knot that has been tied around Woodland Park schools, I have begun to separate the causes from the effects. American Birthright was an effect. The involvement of vast oligarchic fortunes in the subversion of the Woodland Park School District was an effect.
The causes – as tends to be the case with causes – came earlier. A gaggle of radicals winning a board majority, the hiring of an ideologically extreme attorney and a truculent, pugnacious superintendent; these are causes. These are the things which threw enough chum in the water to attract the big sharks, sharks like Bradley and Scaife, NAS and SPN.
While the American Birthright curriculum makes Woodland Park unique, it’s not the only thing which has that effect. Having dedicated the past two columns to examining the interlopers bringing their agenda to Woodland Park from the outside, the next installment in this investigation will return to the roots, to those pushing their agenda on Woodland Park from the inside, to those who softened the ground enough for that gaggle of radicals to win that majority in the first place — and to the mysterious, controversial church which may be at the center of it all.